Editing: 3 Uncomfortable Thoughts

Hello again ūüôā

I decided to give you all an update, a brief snapshot of the last few weeks.

As those who follow my posts here know, I recently finished the first draft of a novel, the opener in the¬†Mist Rock series. Adhering to all good advice, I set the book aside for a while, let it simmer in a corner of my room as I turned my attention¬†elsewhere. But no amount of poetry or thought-pieces could replace what I hid away in that bottom drawer.¬†Mist Rock was a story, after all, the one good thing I’ll always come back for. And so when April rolled around, I decided I’d fought the instinct far too long.

Last week, I sat down to edit.

So far, I’ve had mixed results. I’ve never edited anything this large before; 117,000 words definitely dwarfs my Final Year Project at university which only just crept over 4,000. That was science, this was fiction, and though there’s a place for those words together, this certainly wasn’t it.

This was fantasy.

As expected, I got lost in the world I’d created, swept off my feet in a Bilbo-esque fashion. But along the way, the lines started to blur, shifting on the page in front of me so that my own thoughts started to speak.

Here are a few things they said.

1. Who is going to share in this story?

An important part of any story is deciding its point of view. Fortunately, I found that part easy. This was Marke Calin’s story. Sadly, I didn’t have the same success when it came to determining who shared the world with him.

A lot of people would say this is a symptom of writing fantasy, of dreaming up worlds with a “cast of thousands”. But while I certainly didn’t lack for inhabitants, the real battle for me wasn’t asking myself which characters deserved to exist, but which 5 simply¬†had¬†to.

In a weird way, the real world (where I’m the protagonist) is the same. So much of life is determined by the company you keep, the friends you chase up, the five or six people you picture¬†smiling at your wedding.

Lately, in both editing and life, I feel like I’m always playing catch-up.

Trying to stay in touch with people is a lot like chasing shadows, searching for ghosts or emptying water out of a sinking ship. It’s a futile effort, a game we play for seventy or so years without ever stopping to ask ourselves can we win. Away from school and college, the levels take on a whole new difficulty. Not only are your chances to meet friends curtailed, but you begin to realise you can’t keep them all satisfied. There are too few pages to go round.

There’s just not enough room in the story.

2. Which Kyle is right?

Another thought I seem to be having more and more as I thumb through the pages is that rarely, if ever, will I come up with the same words twice.

I’ve often found myself reading the same scene one day apart, coming at it from various angles, writing it out in my mind a million different ways. It makes me wonder which way is right-which is the way I¬†really want to use.

Life lately is starting to look similar.

I have a fair idea what the story is for the next few years. The plot is there, as are many of the characters. What hasn’t been written yet are the words themselves, the many little details which one day might matter. The realisation that even a subtle edit here and there could change the ending is, well, “doing me a frighten”. I’d like to believe there won’t be any twists or unwelcome surprises.

But, as I’ve told you, I’m not the author. I’m the hero.

And the hero never sees the twists coming.

3. Is this any good?

Ah yes. This was the one you were waiting for.

Anyone who has ever written something substantial knows the fear that comes with finishing a draft, of realising that the beginning-middle-end is now all there to be judged. And for most of us, we’re streets ahead our own harshest critics.

I can’t decide, all these thousands of words later, if I’ll ever truly make it. That sort of success, the one we dream about as we slap the keyboard, is of course relative, defined by our own expectations and skill. But in a world where bestselling books rise from nothing, where authors sell a million copies with a click, it’s hard not to think we could one day be there too.

I, like many writers I know, still can’t really tell if their words are¬†hot, or if this entire effort, this whole “Oh-em-Gee I wanna be an author”, is just much ado about nothing. I do know I’m still hiding behind the curtain, whispering “It’s just not ready” as I try to will my novel to be better. Admittedly, I’m trying to will it to be brave.

And that in itself is the scariest thing about editing.

Because I’m not sure if¬†Mist Rock ever will be ready, or if it’s just going to have to face the world anyway.

Maybe that’s the only¬†way that it can.

 


 

I’d love to hear about your own editing experiences. What keeps you going? What runs in your mind? How do you deal with that inner critic?

 

Monday Mystery: Villisca Axe Murders

A few years back, as part of this series, I wrote about the Hinterkaifeck murders of 1922. Today I’ve decided to blog about something similar, the murders this time taking place ten years prior in the state of Iowa.

The crime

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1912. Summer. A small town in a sleepy corner of Iowa. The Moore family (father Josiah, mother Sarah, and their four children: Herman Montgomery (11), Mary Katherine (10), Arthur Boyd (7), and Paul Vernon (5)) prepare to attend a Children’s Day Program in the local Presbyterian Church. The Moores were well-known and well-liked in the community. They even invited Ina Mae (8) and Lena Gertrude Stillinger (12), neighbours, to spend the night at their residence after church. The program ended at 9:30 p.m.; the party arrived back to the house roughly fifteen to thirty minutes later.

Early the next morning, about 7 a.m, Mary Peckham, the Moores’ neighbor, emerged from her house and started her day’s work. She soon became concerned when she noticed the Moores didn’t join her. Peckham went over to their house and knocked, waited for someone to answer. Nobody came, and so she attempted to open the door and discovered that it was locked. She let the Moores’ chickens out and called Josiah’s brother. He arrived, knocked on the door and shouted, but Ross Moore heard no response. He decided to try a spare key that he’d been given, unlocking the door and pushing inside. While Peckham stood on the porch, he¬†stepped into the parlor and opened the guest bedroom door. Inside, he found the bodies of Ina and Lena Stillinger. He shouted to Peckham to call the sheriff, Hank Horton. His subsequent search of the house revealed the bodies of the Moore family, all of them bludgeoned to death. The murder weapon, an axe belonging to Josiah, was found in the guest room with the Stillinger sisters.

Local doctors concluded that the murders had taken place between midnight and 5 a.m. Investigators later found cigarettes in the attic, suggesting that the killer or killers waited in the attic until the Moore family and the Stillinger guests fell asleep. They then began in the master bedroom, killing Josiah and Sarah Moore first. Josiah received more blows from the axe than any other victim; his eyes were missing and while the killer used the blunt end of the axe on the rest of their victims, Josiah had been killed with the sharp edge. The killer(s) then went into the children’s rooms and bludgeoned Herman, Katherine, Boyd, and Paul in the same manner as their parents. They then returned to the master bedroom to inflict more blows on the Josiah and Sarah, knocking over a shoe that had filled with blood. Afterward, the killer(s) stepped downstairs and killed the Stillinger guests.

It is believed that Lena Stillinger was the only victim awake when murdered. There were signs she may have fought back; she was found lying crosswise on the bed, and with a defensive wound on her arm.

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The suspects

  1. Andrew Saywer: No real evidence linked Sawyer to the case, but his name came up often in grand jury testimonies. Thomas Dyer, a bridge foreman and pile driver for the Burlington Railroad, testified that Sawyer approached his crew at 6:00 a.m on the morning the bodies were discovered. He was clean-shaven and wearing a brown suit, but his shoes were covered in mud, his pants soaked to the knees. He asked for employment and was given a job on the spot. Dyer informed police that later that evening Sawyer purchased a newspaper and went off by himself to read it. The front page showed the Villisca murders and, according to Dyer, Sawyer “was much interested in it.” Dyer’s crew were uneasy that Sawyer slept with an axe next to him and talked much of the Villisca murders and whether or not a killer had been apprehended. Dyer later testified that prior to Sawyer’s arrest, he walked up behind him. Sawyer was rubbing his head with both hands and suddenly jumped up and said to himself, “I will cut your god damn heads off.” At the same time, he made striking motions with the axe and began hitting the piles in front of him.
    Dyer’s son testified that one day as the crew drove through Villisca, Sawyer showed him “where the man who killed the Moore family got out of town”. He said the man that did the job jumped over a manure box which he pointed out about 1¬Ĺ blocks away, and then showed where he crossed the railroad track. J.R. said there were footprints in the soggy ground north of the embankment. Sawyer told J.R. to look on the other side of the car and said he would show him an old tree where the murderer stepped into the creek. According to J.R. Dyer, he looked over and saw such a tree south of the track about four blocks away. But he was dismissed as a suspect in the case when officials learned that he could prove he had been in Osceola, Iowa, on the night of the murders. He had been arrested for vagrancy there and was sent away by train about 11pm.
  2. Reverend Kelly: An English-born traveling minister, Kelly was in town on the night of the murders. He was described as odd, accused of peeping and several times asking young women to pose nude for him. On June 8, 1912, he came to Villisca to teach at the Children’s Day services, which the Moore family attended on June 9, 1912. He left town between 5:00¬†a.m. and 5:30¬†a.m. on June 10, 1912, hours before the bodies were discovered.

    In the weeks that followed, he displayed a fascination with the case, writing many letters to the police, investigators, and family of the deceased. This aroused suspicion, and a private investigator wrote back to Reverend Kelly, asking for details that the minister might know about the murders. Kelly replied with great detail, claiming to have heard sounds and possibly witnessed them. His known mental illness made authorities question whether he knew the details intimately or was only imagining them.

    In 1914, two years after the murders, Kelly was arrested for sending obscene material through the mail. In 1917, he was arrested for the Villisca murders. Police obtained a confession from him; however, it followed many hours of interrogation and Kelly later recanted. After two separate trials, he was acquitted.

  3. Frank Fernando Jones: a Villisca resident and Iowa State Senator, Jones used to employ Josiah Moore at his implement store for years before Jones left and set up his own. This may have taken business away from Jones, including a tractor dealership. Moore was rumored to have had an affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law, though no evidence suggests this.
  4. William Mansfield: One theory suggests Senator Jones hired William “Blackie” Mansfield to murder the Moore family. It is believed that Mansfield was a serial killer because he murdered his wife, infant child, father- and mother-in-law with an axe two years after the Villisca crimes. He is also linked to axe crimes in Kansas only a few days after the murders. He was also a suspect in the double homicide of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Illinois. Each of the crime sites was accessible by train, and all murders were carried out¬†in roughly the same manner.

    The Grand Jury of Montgomery County refused to indict him, on grounds that his alibi checked out. Nine months before the murders at Villisca, a similar case of axe murder occurred in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Two further axe murder cases occured in Kansas. Overall, there’s strong evidence they were carried out by the same person. Other murders that may be linked include the numerous unsolved axe murders along the Southern Pacific Railroad (1911-1912), the unsolved Axeman of New Orleans killings, as well as several other such murders.

    The murders in Colorado Springs were closely related to the Villisca case in particular. Bed sheets were used to cover the windows to prevent passersby from looking in, as was seen in the Moore house (the murderer hung aprons and skirts to cover the windows). The murderer in both cases also covered the heads of their victims with bedclothes. 

    Investigator Wilkerson stated he could prove Mansfield was present on the night of ech of the murders. In each case, a burning lamp with the chimney off was left at the foot of the bed and a basin in which the murderer washed was found in the kitchen. The murderer also avoided leaving fingerprints by wearing gloves (Mansfield would have known his fingerprints were on file at the federal military prison at Leavenworth).

    Mansfield was tried but never convicted.

Did the killer gain access to the house after nightfall, or did they really wait in the attic? Was the killer known to the family, or was it part of a serial spree? Who carried out the Villisca Axe Murders?

And why?

(If you would like to learn more about the murders, or visit the infamous house, click here)

Galway Girl: How Ed Sheeran Wrote the Most Laughable Irish Song Ever

Before I begin, I should inform you that I don’t actually mind Ed Sheeran’s music. And as far as I can see, he seems like a nice guy too. I mean, just look at this tweet. Try telling me this man doesn’t deserve a hair tussle and a goodie bag.

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But I take issue with one of the songs on his new album. So much so that I’ve decided to write a whole blog about it.

Now *cracks knuckles*, let’s see how much I can¬†Divide¬†your opinion on “Galway Girl”.

[Verse 1]
I met her on Grafton street right outside of the bar
She shared a cigarette with me while her brother played the guitar

Five seconds in, Ed invents a brother and a guitar. Because rhyming. Then, perhaps knowing that literally nobody outside Ireland can name a single street in the country, he drops this imaginary bar onto Grafton Street, home to venues as wild as the Disney Store. To be fair, I could be wrong here. He might be using the 5 minutes or so Captain America’s spend cooking their food to share a cheeky cigarette on their doorstep. Better rush back upstairs you guys. Woo Woo’s on me.

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She asked me what does it mean, the Gaelic ink on your arm?
Said it was one of my friend’s songs, do you want to drink on?

Right, so one of two things occurs here. Either this woman is a fraud. Not from Ireland. Not Galway. Fake Cailín, okay.

Or, Ed wants the American audience to recognise the mythical language of the leprechauns. Either way, I hate it. Anyway, here’s¬†Balla Iontach.

She took Jamie as a chaser, Jack for the fun
She got Arthur on the table with Johnny riding a shotgun
Chatted some more, one more drink at the bar
Then put Van on the jukebox, got up to dance

See these are all in fact drinks, not men, and nothing is as Irish as lashing back a pint of Guiness¬†and washing it down with some hard whiskey (????). Especially after destroying a dirty Chicken Burger and a fudge sundae at Captain America’s. ¬†Grrrr. Give me the bill and that fucking plate of Murray Mints, I demand Brown-Eyed Girl!!

You know she beat me at darts and then she beat me at pool
And then she kissed me like there was nobody else in the room

Irish women are raised in pubs. She beat him at rings too but he was too ashamed to admit it. Nobody else in the room? Well, they’ve obviously left Captain America’s, site of Ireland’s last workhouse and highest population density.

As last orders were called was when she stood on the stool
After dancing to céilidh singing to trad tunes

“Finish up there please” *lights flicking* “Time to go home there”

Ed, nobody in Ireland requests “The Siege of Ennis ” on a night out. You could have just been honest and told us she was fist-pumping to Maniac 2000 like a good Irish catholic.

And why are you trying to tick off so many Irishisms anyway? I’m half expecting the next verse to revolve around the two of you drinking tea in the Burren while an Irish Mammy complains about the immersion.

siege

I never heard Carrickfergus ever sung so sweet

Agreed. You’ve never heard it at all *pictures Ed frantically googling Irish music the night before his album is due*.

Acapella in the bar using her feet for a beat
Oh, I could have that voice playing on repeat for a week
And in this packed out room swear she was singing to me

Ed, if you want the words “Cause I’m drunk today and I’m seldom sober” sang to your for a week, we may have to steer this blog towards an intervention.

You know, she played the fiddle in an Irish band
But she fell in love with an English man
Kissed her on the neck and then I took her by the hand
Said, “Baby, I just want to dance”

Oh Sheery¬†boy, you’re on thin ice here. You’re John Smith and she’s Pocahontus,¬†is it? Also, we all know you settled for fiddle. You originally wrote harp, didn’t ya. Didn’t ya?

And c’mere, you can’t just kiss ’em on the neck. There’s an established protocol

  1. Stare at them for five minutes. Eventually make eye contact
  2. Freeze, get sweaty and go buy a jaegerbomb
  3. Stand and dance like near them, not with them. Just near.
  4. Give up, go home and slap yourself in front of the mirror.
  5. Rinse and repeat weekly

My pretty little Galway Girl

#RipOff #RiseUp #JusticeForSteveEarle #VivaSharonShannon

And now we’ve outstayed our welcome and it’s closing time

Preach.

I was holding her hand, her hand was holding mine

I predict a hand war.

Our coats both smell of smoke, whisky and wine
As we fill up our lungs with the cold air of the night

If this was a real Irish night out they wouldn’t be¬†your coats, they’d be whatever you found stuffed down the back of the chairs people were shifting on.

I walked her home then she took me inside
To finish some Doritos and another bottle of wine

Hang on. You arrive home. You break out a bottle of wine (why are you so intent on making this woman vomit?) and then you go for the Doritos (?!?!?!) Short of busting out a bag of Mighty Munch or that weird paste glue you tried not to eat as a four-year-old, could you make your hands any messier right now? I’m curious, what flavour Doritos?

I swear I’m gonna put you in a song…..
….about…………………… a perfect night

Ah, okay. They were Chilli Heatwave.

Bonus “Castle on the Hill” round

Ehh, isn’t it really weird how Ed Sheeran basically insults all his friends in this song? Take a closer look.

One had two kids but lives alone
One’s already on his second wife
One’s just barely getting by

Hmm. Imagine what it will be like when he does arrive home.

“Oh look, all the old gang came out to see me. Made a little welcome party. Wonder why they’re all holding bats.”

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Monday Mystery: The death of Annie Borjesson

On December 4, 2005, the body of Annie Borjesson, a 30-year-old Swedish woman, was discovered on the shore of Prestwick, a town on the west coast of Scotland. A few days later, on 7 December 2005, a local newspaper published a brief account of her death:

An area of Prestwick beach was cordoned off at the weekend after a woman’s body was found washed up on the shore. A dog walker discovered the 31-year-old woman’s body about 8.30am on Sunday near to Maryborough Road. A police investigation team quickly sealed off the area but there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding her death.

Police ruled the death a suicide by drowning, but Annie’s family wasn’t convinced. As they began to investigate, they found some unanswered questions.

Annie’s body arrived back in Sweden. There, the undertakers claimed she had several bruises that she seemed to have incurred while she was still alive. The autopsy in Scotland contained only a few notes.

Body was heavily contaminated by sand and seaweed…….lungs were congested…..air passages contained ‘a frothy material’. Conclusion: death by drowning.

Official reports had concluded that other marks on the corpse were the result of collisions with debris in the sea.¬†Pieces of tissue removed during the post-mortem were also examined by the Swedish forensic service. A professor in strasbourg found tiny diatom shells ‚Äď algae ‚Äď in the sample and identified them as navicula lanceolata. It was an unexpected discovery. Far from confirming that Annie had drowned, it tended to cast doubt on the conclusion of the post-mortem. Navicula lanceolata is a freshwater rather than a seawater diatom.

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Annie lived in Edinburgh, but on December 3, she traveled 129 kilometers to Prestwick Airport for unknown reasons. There was a flight to Gothenburg around 6.30 that evening, and another the following morning. The family assume that she was intending to fly home. It transpired that she had an appointment in Sweden with her hairdresser, Inger Nossborn, on Monday. She tried to withdraw cash using her credit card twice, first £100, then £50. Both times, she didn’t have enough funds in her account to complete the transaction. She was later captured on CCTV.

In the first image from the airport, Annie was wearing a winter jacket, later found near her body on Prestwick beach, a red and white fleece, trousers and trainers. She also carried a shoulder back. In the second shot, around 3.16, she was seen walking towards the car park. Independent investigators recreated the route Annie took through the airport. Comparing this to the victim’s CCTV footage, they determined she would not have been able to complete the route in the recorded 55 seconds unless she had been running.In total, she spent less than five minutes at the airport. A friend later saw the footage and said Annie appeared to be walking around looking ‚Äúannoyed and angry.‚Ä̬†She then began walking toward Prestwick itself. She wasn‚Äôt familiar with the town, which was about a mile away from the airport. A witness later claimed to have seen a figure standing on the beach near the sea.¬†The person was about 150 yards away, he and a friend reckoned. He or she was standing motionless at the edge of the water. By the time the friends turned for home, twenty minutes had elapsed since the first sighting, yet it seemed the lone figure on the shore hadn’t budged. There was no one else on the beach. It occurred to the man that the person might be contemplating suicide. He mentioned this possibility to his friend. But they thought no more about it until the following morning.

The entire investigation was shrouded in secrecy. Scottish authorities refused to release tissue samples that could help clarify the cause of death. When the family accessed Annie‚Äôs email account, they found that it had been wiped. A friend discovered that the victim’s phone company had failed to register any of the calls she had made to Annie during 2005. The phone company refused to discuss this.

This friend soon began to receive silent phone calls. Family members too had problems with their email accounts. It later came to light that Annie‚Äôs hair had been cut after her death and thrown away. Maria also discovered that her friend’s full name ‚Äď Annie Kristina Borjesson ‚Äď was almost identical to that of a journalist in the United States who, it was thought, had been investigating rendition flights through Prestwick Airport.

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Annie‚Äôs family continues to campaign. Her mother met with the First Minister of Scotland and a petition of 3,000 signatures was signed for more information about Annie’s death.

Questions still remain unanswered.

Why would a woman living in Edinburgh travel 80 miles to commit suicide?

Why was she running in the airport?

And what did she mean, a day before her death, when she said to her family on the phone:

I have to take care of myself.

Monday Mystery-Sodder children disappearance

It’s been a while since I’ve revisited the Monday Mysteries series. This installment tells the story of the Sodder family, the house fire that claimed their home, and the mystery surrounding the fate of five of their children.

Prelude (1895-December 23rd, 1945)

George Sodder (Giorgio Soddu) was born in 1895. An Italian, he emigrated to the United States at age 13. Entering through Ellis Island, he said goodbye to his brother who turned straight for home. He quickly found work on the railroads in Pennsylvania and eventually married Jennie Cipriani (a fellow Italian-American) and settled in Fayetteville, West Virginia.

The couple lived in a two-storey timber frame house alongside many other Italian-Americans. George’s business prospered around the time the first of ten of their children were born, and soon the Sodder’s were one of the most respected families in the neighbourhood. However, by the time the last of their children were born in 1943 (Sylvia), George had become known for his outspoken views, especially against Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, often leading to arguments with other immigrants. His eldest son Joe was already fighting among the allied forces in Europe. A year later,¬†Il Duce was dead, but the tension was still very much alive in Fayetteville.

On more than one occasion this came to the fore. A visiting life assurance salesman warned him that “your house will go up in smoke and your children are going to be destroyed”. On a separate occasion, a man seeking work went round to the back of the house and pointed to a pair of fuse boxes, warning George they’d “cause a fire someday” (though the house had been recently rewired and checked).

Weeks before the incident, his older sons had also noticed a strange car parked along the main highway through town, its occupants watching the younger Sodder children as they returned from school.

Christmas Eve, 1945

The Sodders celebrated Christmas Eve at home, missing only two of their children-Joe, who was at the front in Europe, and Marion (their eldest daughter), who was working a shift at a dime store downtown. When she did arrive home, she brought gifts to surprise three of her younger sisters (Martha, 12, Jennie, 8, and Betty, 6). Delighted with their new toys, the children asked could they stay up later than their bedtime. At 10:00 p.m., Jennie told the children they could stay up a little later, as long as the two oldest boys still awake (14-year-old Maurice and 10-year-old Louis), remembered to attend to the animals outside. George and the two oldest boys, John, 23 and George Jr., 16, tired from work all day, were already fast asleep. Jennie then took Sylvia (2) in her arms and went to bed.

At 12:30¬†a.m., the telephone rang. Jennie woke and went downstairs to answer. She didn’t recognise the voice on the other end of the line, a ¬†woman asking for a name she was not familiar with. In the background, Jennie heard the sound of laughter and clinking glasses. She assured the caller she must have dialed the wrong number. Later, she recalled the woman’s weird laugh on the telephone. She hung up and decided to return to bed. As she did, she noticed that the lights were still on and the curtains were not drawn, two things the children should have attended to. Her daughter Marion had fallen asleep on the living room couch, so she assumed the other children had gone back up to the attic where they slept. Jennie closed the curtains, outed the lights, and trudged back upstairs.

She awoke an hour later to the sound of something hitting the roof. A loud bang, followed by a rolling noise. She listened for a moment, and when she heard nothing further, drifted back to sleep. At 1.30am, she woke to the smell of smoke. When she investigated, she found George’s office ablaze, fire ringed round the telephone line and the fuse box. She quickly roused her husband and their eldest sons.

George, Jennie, Marion, Sylvia and her two eldest brothers, who all slept on the second floor, escaped the house. They shouted to the children upstairs in the attic but heard no response. The stairs to the third floor were consumed by flame. John Sodder later said in a police interview that he went up to the attic to alert his siblings, though he then changed his story to say that he only called up and did not actually see them.

Outside, George and his wife struggled to rescue the children still trapped inside. They tried to contact the fire brigade but their phone wasn’t operating. Running to a neighbour’s house, Marion was met with the same ill-luck. Nearby, a driver who had seen the fire couldn’t reach an operator from the phone in a tavern.

George climbed the wall of the house and broke an attic window, slashing open his arm as he did so. He sent his sons to fetch the ladder they kept at the side of the house, but it was nowhere to be found. They tried to use a water barrel to extinguish the fire. Its contents were frozen solid. In a last desperate attempt to reach the attic, George tried to pull both of his business trucks up to the house to climb up to the window. Despite having worked fine only the day before, neither truck would start.

Over the next hour, the Sodders watched their family home burn to the ground. Low on manpower due to the war, the fire department did not respond until later that morning. By 10 a.m., the Sodder home lay in ruin. 

Morris, a firefighter and Jennie’s brother, helped search through the wreckage.

A few hours later, he told his sister the news. There were no bones in the ashes.

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The aftermath 

A few days after the fire, George bulldozed the site of their home, the family intent on making a memorial garden. The chief of the fire department wanted to conduct a more thorough investigation, but the Sodders could not bare the sight of their ruined home any longer.

An inquest into the fire the next day determined it was an accident caused by faulty wiring. Among the jurors was the insurance salesman who had threatened George two months previously.

Though death certs were issued for the five children who were presumed to have died in the fire, the Sodders still had questions. They argued the blaze could not have been as a result of an electrical fault, as the Christmas lights remained operational early on in the fire. They also found their ladder at the bottom of an embankment some distance from their house. On top of that, it was discovered that their telephone lines had been cut, not burned by the fire. A man was arrested in relation to this, though he maintains he meant to cut a power line. His identity remains unknown. George Sodder argued he may have also tampered with his trucks.

Jennie Sodder, on the other hand, wanted to follow up on the call placed to the house shortly before the fire. The placer of the call was eventually traced, though when questioned she maintains it was a simple case of wrong-number.

In 1946, her recollection of events received a boost from a local bus driver, who passing by the house that night had seen unidentified men throwing “balls of fire” at the house. When Sylvia found a green rubber ball a few months later, George postulated the noise his wife had heard was a form of grenade being thrown at the house, and that the fire had started on the roof.

Other witnesses claimed to have seen the children themselves. A woman who watched the fire from the road said she had seen some of them in a passing car. Another woman said she had served them breakfast the next morning at a rest-stop.

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Over the following years, the Sodders never gave up hope, offering a reward for information about the surviving children and erecting a billboard on U.S. route 19. This was met with a flurry of sightings and tips, all of which ultimately led to nothing. The most notable was the following photo, sent to the Sodders in 1967.¬†Jennie found the letter, postmarked in Central City, Kentucky, with no return address. The picture inside was of a young man with features resembling Louis’s, who would have been in his 30s at the time if he was alive. On the back was written:

Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35

The Sodders hired a P.I. to follow up on the letter, but no contact was ever received again.

louis

Today, Sylvia is the last surviving member of the Christmas Eve fire. Only two at the time, she maintains it was her earliest memory, and that her siblings survived.

Whether they did or not, we’ll likely never know.

 

 

Candles

candles

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog. To put it into perspective, my last post was titled “The words I spoke to Autumn”, and today marked the first day of Spring. That’s not to say I haven’t kept busy on the writing front, but so much of what I’ve been working on is in private, under wraps, sheltered away while I stubbornly polish it. Safe to say it’s a story for another day.

I decided to write this post, “Candles”, in response to all the noise out there in the world at the moment. There’s been a lot of news coverage around the fallout¬†of the U.S. presidential election, the Brexit vote, the conflicts in the Middle East and our own troubles closer to home. Regardless of your interest in politics, it’s becoming quickly impossible to ignore. Drowning airwaves, plastering TVs and seeping into social media newsfeeds-these events are perhaps the great hysteria of our decade, maybe even the landmark moment of our generation if certain commentators are to be believed. And yet, by and large, that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

It’s hard to keep a finger on the pulse in this rapidly changing world, that same little flutter at the neck now starting to move and crop up elsewhere. Even so, I’ve managed to pin down one thing. One¬†sober, irrevocable truth.

Confidence is almost extinct.

Acquaintance

A few months ago, I was chatting over coffee with someone I knew reasonably well. To this day, I can’t remember who it was, though for the sake of the argument it doesn’t really matter. At some point during our exchanges, the blurred face turned to me.

I didn’t know your parents had such normal jobs. It’s nice.

I can recall being taken aback at the time, sort of vaguely uncomfortable, like I’d just caught my name in conversation or blinked to find a light on my face. For a few months, I didn’t know whether to read the remark as a compliment or an insult, though¬†I’ve now settled on the fact it was unintentionally the latter. And recently, it gave me pause, made me think about why they said it in the first place. My only conclusion is that the person assumed my parents were extremely well-off, and as a result, I must come across as the son of that, which in layman’s terms can equate¬†to pretentious.

I think part of growing involves trying to see yourself in the eyes of others, attempting to become “self-aware”. It’s by no means an easy task, opening yourself up¬†to the one person who knows you best. All the same, the above story is an example of what I call a minute-mirror, a quick snapshot of who you might be. And as with most photos, very few of us ever like how they turn out. Perhaps the silver lining here is that we can learn a lot from these polaroids, shaping ourselves in time for¬†the next flash. What we can’t do, however, is change how the camera sees us.

The generation I was born into is the most over-labelled and over-scrutinized of all time. Scarce thirty years to our name, we’re already to blame for the deterioration of human nature, the collapse of what people considered¬†good values. All the same, one of the only constants between us, Generation X¬†et al is what I’d actually consider one of the more damning aspects of society we’ve allowed to continue.

Modesty.

Ronaldo

Saturday, 18th of June. A summer evening in the depths of Cork City, where alone I watch Portugal fight it out in a group game with Austria at the European Championships. The match is tied but the Iberian side have just earned a penalty. To nobody’s surprise, captain Ronaldo steps up to take it. Approaching slowly, perhaps waiting for the Austrian keeper to move first, he drives the ball into the post, watches it bounce helplessly away to safety. I’m on the edge of my seat and I sigh in disbelief. On the screen, the Real Madrid forward does roughly the same. And then, as if to rock my house to rubble, the RTE commentator explodes through the speakers.

“THE SHEER ARROGANCE OF THE MAN”, the man-child shouts, lambasting the Portuguese forward for literally kicking a ball wrong. He fails to mention the same player has been on fire all game, dancing in and out of the Austrian defence to shoot close on a number of occasions. And as Ronaldo’s side stutter even more, the man behind the mic pours on the grief.

I’ve often found the case of Cristiano Ronaldo rather unsettling. He is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most witch-hunted men in sport. Engaged in a never-ending battle with Barcelona maestro Lionel Messi, Ronaldo has become a pantomime villain of football, an easy target for budding sports journalists and that lad in the pub. All because he is confident.

I don’t believe Ronaldo is arrogant. I truly don’t. We see on a number of occasions in plain sight his genuine interaction with fans, his play-acting with team mates and his willingness to engage with the wider community. Yet all that is nullified in the eyes of the press when he complains on the pitch, takes off his top or celebrates because he’s on the scoresheet again.

Just so we’re all clear, we’re talking about a man who unknown to the world only a decade ago, has gone on to win three premier league titles, an FA Cup, three Champions League medals, a European Championship, four Ballon d’Ors, a rake of other individual awards, has more goals in the Champions League than anybody else, has more hattricks in La Liga than anybody else and has scored more goals for Real Madrid (arguably the greatest club in the world) than any other player. I’m sorry, but if a man who accomplishes that much in ten years wants to take off his top and be happy about a goal, fucking leave him off.

On the other hand, we have Lionel Messi. The Argentinian, likely to go down in history as one of the greatest players of all time (and rightly so), has become the people’s champion of football. The tricky forward, known for his solo runs, turn of pace and amazing vision, does not celebrate with as much vigour as Ronaldo, nor engage in as much sponsorship or modeling. As a result, people have elected him a sort of demi-god, a humble master of football who couldn’t harm a fly if it accused him of tax fraud. Though to be clear, Messi was not born yesterday. The Barcelona legend is not under some impression that he’s only “kinda okay” at football. Every time he’s interviewed he’s pointing at his team mates as though that goal where he slithered through six defenders on his own was “all down to the team”. It’s an attitude that endears him to thousands, makes it seem as though the poor crator hasn’t even come to grips with the fact that his legacy will endure forever.

The dichotomy of Ronaldo and Messi typifies the great issue we have with confidence. Messi is “one of us”, a shake-your-hand, smile-for-the-camera, aren’t-we-all-friends-kinda guy. It’s the same tactic politicians use to garner your vote. First, they are among you, then they are you, and suddenly you’re ticking a box with their name next to it. While being humble is applauded, confidence is viewed as some sort of disease, a blight likely to leave us starving if we tolerate too much of it. And yet confidence, so easily skewed into arrogance if your job is to make headlines, is undoubtedly the default position of human nature. The modesty we see in the world today is for the most part false, a cloak-and-dagger show put on by people who’ve learned a thing or two about Narcissistic Supply. Open up even one of your social media newsfeeds and tell me it doesn’t read so. Generally, the not-so-humble entries range from “I’m terrible at life”-25 year old with a car, a steady job, a long term relationship and solid family support to the more obvious “I can’t believe I went to the gym and forgot it was closed.” And of course, the point that I’m making is that those engaging in this behaviour are actually the victims. They are in all respects blameless, forced to reduce their self-worth to zero by a society that values meekness and obedience. A society that values shadows.

Stars

The interesting thing about human nature is that it differs from the individual to the collective. Alone, we’re somehow starting to have far greater company than with others.

Modesty is a social construct, akin to eating with cutlery or using politically correct terms. But while the latter two are virtually harmless, modesty can become so deeply rooted in the collective expectations of a people that to not conform makes you a pariah. We start to dwindle, quash our passions and accept that perhaps we’re not destined for anything at all. The only successes we share are those deemed suitable by whatever background generation we’re part of. Ten years ago the concept of posting “food plans” or “gym pics” to social media would have had you laughed out of any room in the country. Now, those are accepted in culture, woven into the fabric of the very small tapestry we allow the world see. Gym goals, car purchases, engagements. Throw in the common house cat and that’s about all you can share with the world without being labelled an egomaniac. And so we plod along, internalising all the pride we want to show others, belittling ourselves so that we can click “add to cart” on popularity.

Perhaps the only well-defined group of people who don’t engage in any of this finger-to-lips behaviour¬†is celebrities. The culture we’ve built around them, as a result, is essentially escapism, a brief look at the sort of lives we’ve been denied. People wonder how hours are spent in front of reality TV shows, failing to understand we ogle these stars because they’re the uncaged birds, the liberated few, the candles brave enough to keep burning.

But even in the celebrity world, the weeds of a forced modesty are taking hold. Now even those privileged few who’ve come unshackled have to watch for the signs, knowing even the slightest slip would have the daggers of collective humbleness down on them. It’s not uncommon for an idle tweet to turn into character assassination.

“Et tu, Buzzfeed?” they cry, as the knives of social media plunge into them.

Storm

And of course, while reading this you may be rolling your eyes, thinking to yourself “Well yes, but I am truly modest, not modest because I am made so.” If so, I hope you know you are the humble-esque equivalent of those who say “Well I just don’t see colour” when confronted with the idea of racial prejudice.

And what harm, you say, if the world insists on a quiet voice here or stifled celebration there? Isn’t it nice just to keep hush, to play a ghost, to pretend we’re smaller than we truly are. Well, if Ronaldo didn’t take his top off tomorrow, the world wouldn’t fall down around us (probably). That being said, the pursuit of a pseudo-modest society has far-reaching consequences. Firstly, it impacts on us, the small wavy flames, the ever-candles who light the darkness. While it’s perfectly natural to have a lack of confidence, to tremble on a wick as you sit there, it’s artificial to make a wax out of modesty. If we you were to wake up to an empty world tomorrow, your default setting would not be modest. You would grow certain, sure of yourself against the things that life threw at you. As a candle, it might make sense to burn slowly, not waste oxygen or risk snuffing out. And yet, that attitude begs the shadows to come closer, draws the night on you before its due. Something similar was once said in Coach Carter

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us

And while modesty as a social construct lives at large in the world, it makes its home here in Ireland. This is the land where to be “a slob” or “a dote” is desired while “to have notions”, “to be brazen” and “to fuss” is almost a flogging. We’re a head-down, one-fist-pump-then-back-to-the-half-back-line society that values meekness over metal, silence over fury and death stares over well, anything resembling a solution. It’s a small wonder our elected Taoiseach will crawl over to Trump in March, holding shamrock as though it were a sacrifice. What was it Edward Burke said about the Irish-“All it takes for evil to flourish is for your man to say era be grand.”

And of course, those polarized across the political spectrum are relying on this modesty. It’s how religions rose, kings ruled and governments held us to ransom. They are trusting that we won’t come close to the fire, afraid we’ll only get burned, forgetting it’s cold out here in the wilderness.

And so here at last, I am asking you to turn your back on modesty, abandon a system as dangerous to mental health as it is human progress. Understand, this is not a world where to be not-humble makes you arrogant. You forget, Goldilocks found three bowls at the table, one of which, warm with confidence, was just right.

Vigil

The world does not benefit from you burning low, little ever-candle. Remember, there are forces out there in the darkness at work, people who would have you waver, flicker, go out without as much as a hiss. They’re counting on you being a meagre light, a pale flame, only a whisper of fire. But in times such as this, you can’t afford to play small. Because soon the wind will whip hard, and the stars will drop out of the sky and the moon will go black and all that’ll be left will be you: the soft, modest candle.

And seeing the gloom yawn up over you, watching it swallow all the other teardrop lights, you may realise something.

Perhaps it is time you burned brighter.

The Forge

The last time I wrote here I talked about finishing college and going out into the real world. There was a gate on the edge of town, and passing through it I went out into the fields beyond. I haven’t a notion where the road goes, but it goes somewhere after all doesn’t it, and that’s all the comfort I need for now.

There’s something about a journey starting in the summer that gives you vigour. The evenings are long and lazy, and even the night that draws in has a sort of freshness about it. The days are all yellow and blue and the sunset is that soft orange glow that fades on the horizon. Insects are droning in the grasses, water is trickling over hot stones and I’m humming some idle tune. Yes, summer is a great time to get started.

Another day on the road passes, and weary from travel I stray from the path to find refuge. It’s twilight, when the sky is that sort of confused blue half way between the sun and starlight. Nothing is stirring really, but far off in the woods I hear a quiet ring trying to rise over the treetop. And then, peering deep into the black in front of me, I see the smallest flecks of red. I creep closer, and now the clash of sight and sound register with me. I’ve seen such a place before, and though I thought I’d set aside the life I’d had there, perhaps this is where the road was leading me. The last of the daylight falters, I shake off the dust from the trail and shielding my eyes I enter the forge.

I’ve been back writing about 3 years now. It all started in June of 2013, when an idea I’d abandoned when I was 17 started weighing on my mind again. You see, in the summer after fifth year I had decided to take up writing again. It was after all a huge part of my childhood, when I would sit for hours on my bedroom floor filling copybook after copybook with stories of heroes, wars and kingdoms. This was the net effect of the release of The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy and years spent in front of the TV soaking up documentaries about romans, greeks etc. That’s not to say I thought what I was writing was any good. Hardly. But an active imagination yearns to be channeled into something, and it doesn’t exactly demand that the result is anything other than my own personal satisfaction.

School was the great dampener on all of that. I had to weigh the joy I got out of my own stories against the grades they were likely to garner. I even started secondary school submitting essays like the tales you could have pulled out of those copybooks, but it was very quickly apparent they weren’t going to cut it at that level.

When I was 17, like I said, I tried to wire up my imagination to a defibrillator and jump-start the process again. But then, before I’d even got it stable, the leaving cert rolled around and knocked it right back into flat-line again.

And so when I picked up the proverbial paddles in the summer of 2013 one more time, I was resigned to the fact this next resuscitation might fail too. I started what has become a sprawling plan for what you might, in layman’s terms, call a book. The idea I had when I was 17 survived as a single file on an old laptop, which when I discovered at midnight on a quiet summer’s night I nearly fainted. It had survived, buried somewhere I never remembered dumping it in the first place. But it was there. It was old, it was rusted, but it was a start. And so then, I went to the forge.

The art of the blacksmith is a tricky one. They know after all, what they¬†consider good steel. But at the end of the it all, when the furnaces stop roaring, somebody has to find that steel worthwhile. So worthy they’d pay good money for it. Writing fiction feels kind of the same. Here on my blog I write for me, and if the content doesn’t measure up then the work of this smithy keeps going. When you are hoping to one day submit fiction to an agent or a publisher, it’s a different crafting process.

The steel I’m making now has¬†to be good enough. If it isn’t, then one day the lights in the furnace go out, and never come on again. And so every belt of the hammer has to find the mark. The anvil has to hold firm, and the fires have to burn like their lives depended on it, because they do depend on it. That’s a scary way to write really.

But that is the way of it now. Tonight, like I said, I stepped from the road and found myself back in the heat of the forge. It may have been months since I last gripped steel, but when the bellows start blowing and the steam comes rising from that fiery kiss I have to pray there’ll be something inside me to control it.

If there’s steel to be made, I want it to be hard and unrelenting. And so I must be too.

 

 

Here now, at the fork in the road

Robert Frost, the great American poet, lived through an interesting time. He was witness to the turn of the century, two world wars, the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression, the flight of the first airplane and just before he went out, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Somewhere in there, he must have sat down, turned a phrase over in his mind and wrote

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

It’s a pretty simple phrase, but effective nonetheless, as the “fork in the road” exists for just about everyone. After all, life is a journey, and the damn road is littered with choices. Some of these “forks” are easy. Going right is much the same as going left, in terms of destination at least. Yes, what happens along the way might be different, but at some point the woods thin out and you find the paths join up again. And a part of you will think back to that choice in the road and surmise it never really mattered, while another part will look back along “the road not taken” and wonder what might have been, for better or for worse. Yet still, these are the routine decisions, and finding yourself exactly where you thought you’d be, your journey goes on.

The more difficult “forks” are the ones for which we cannot see beyond the first few steps on either road. Out there in the mist, only one thing is certain; these paths will never cross again.

No matter how confident you are in a choice, that fact can still haunt you. The concept of¬†finality¬†is daunting, but for most people it only becomes an issue when we feel it’s going to throw us off track. We all have a journey’s end in mind, a kind of hidden cottage, and though we’re happy to enjoy whatever the road has to offer us along the way, at some point we all want to turn a corner, see little puffs of smoke rising over the treetop and realize “I made it”.

Luckily for us, we have a rough map to guide us. Tracing our fingers over it, we can see a fork at age five, a fork at age twelve, a big fork at age eighteen and somewhere further along, a fork at twenty-two.

That last fork, the end of my college years, is where I find myself now. I think back to some smug lecturer saying “these years will fly”and now I, only one week away from finishing lectures, sigh and admit they were right. It’s like coming upon a crossroads long before the map says it was due. Now it’s there, and regardless of what that piece of paper says, you’re going to have to pick a lot sooner than you’d imagined.

In these situations us travellers often find comfort in “making camp for the night”, which is to say, sitting down with a decision and thinking about it. It’s a fairly good call. Taking the wrong road is bad; taking it in the dark is another matter entirely.

Unfortunately, the dawn waits for nobody, and soon we have to get up, put out our fires, throw on our packs and take that first wobbly step in what we hope is the right direction.

This particular fork, which I long thought of as nothing more than “that bit before my pre-reg year” is shaping up to be more climactic than I’d given it credit for. After all, it’s not often you move job, finish education, sit exams, say somewhat of a goodbye to friends and try figure out where you’re going all in one month. Taken one by one, these are all fairly benign. It’s together that they start to weigh more, and feel like one of those transition periods where you kind of watch yourself from the outside hoping you don’t fuck up.

And quite likely I, or you a person reading this in a similar situation, will fuck up. That’s not the end of the world, and it definitely isn’t the end to the journey.

What is perhaps more disturbing for me than the notion of failure is, as I’ve alluded to, the concept of finality. I’d like to think if I had a few shots at the start of what is basically my adult life that at least one time things would turn out like I want them to. But I definitely don’t have a “few shots”. This isn’t a Thursday for God’s sake.

And so the time I spend “making camp” over these next few months is likely going to be very important. The next year of my life is there for the taking, in so much as its routine contents are fairly set in stone and all I have to do is turn up and keep breathing. After that, the tent is going to have to come down, and I’m going to have to step out onto the road. A part of me sees myself back in UCC, edging forward into the vast forest of a PhD and taking comfort in the fact that though the road is long and arduous, it is still on the map. Depending on what day you ask me I might also muse that UCC isn’t the only college known to man, and though I’m a Cork City boy at heart, there’s a wide world about us. That would certainly be uncharted territory, where many a brave or foolhardy traveller has been lured by the promise of treasure.

Quite plainly, this next year might also stray me from the path, into a part of the profession I’ve always admired but never imagined myself at home. Community pharmacy isn’t where I see myself, but Christ knows I never saw myself learning about drugs when I was fifteen either.

Lastly, arguably least importantly, but most selfishly, I wonder about where this journey takes my writing. It will be a long night staring into the dying embers of the fire, and before the sun comes up this may be the only question I answer, or the only one that I don’t. However, if four years of college have thought me anything, it’s that at some point, I’ll have to answer it.

You can set up camp, but the dark is only fleeting.

You can stop to rest, but you are young, and you have no need of it.

You can dither, dawdle, pause and even doubt, but you cannot turn back.

The Journey’s End is far away yet, and there are many things on the road you have to see if you’re to reach it.

Many people, myself included, know that in many ways the journey is what matters, but though I can afford to get lost in it, I can’t forget that out there little puffs of smoke rise over the treetop.

And that in itself is why the journey matters.

As Robert Frost once quoted

I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

17 in a 1 bed -The days of apartment 2130

‚ÄúA journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles”

As usual, it has been a while since I’ve come back to tell you the story of my summer. This time I return for what is perhaps the hardest entry, with well over a month of adventure to condense down into something palatable. Even so, it will be the most rewarding part of this tale. It has the most ups, and perhaps the most downs, and if ever I think back on those brief three months I spent half a world away, it will be of the following days.

The above quote made sense for this entry, but still has its problems. This journey was measured in friends after all, but it is those friendships that have both defined the journey and also been defined by it. Confusing, I know.

It’s funny though. At the end of November, I found myself at MedBall (Medicine Society’s ball, for those not affiliated). It was a good night, and exactly what I needed before the long three weeks that were college exams. I wasn’t the only pharmacy student there, and if anything we made up a fairly respectable amount of the guests. At one point in the night, as we all milled about on the dance floor, for the briefest of moments there was a coming together. It only lasted a second, and if you blinked you might have missed it. In fact, if you were there reader, I’m sure you would have hardly batted an eyelid. But there in front of me were seven of my friends. Seven friends, all swept up in a moment of enjoyment at a college ball, who probably didn’t notice exactly what I did. But there were the eight who left Cork at the end of May, and came back again three months later. We will not always be half a world away, but to paraphrase¬†Casablanca, “We’ll always have San Diego”.

At the end of June, perhaps one of the most memorable nights was our night at the ball park. The San Diego Padres probably don’t get the award for the most well known baseball team, but that night we made it all the way to ESPN. Baseball is a funny sport, taking at least 3 hours, full of crowd participation (though I have a feeling this is all American sports) and hard to follow if you show up on a whim. Still, I enjoyed it for what is was. It was nice to see a fabled home run, or try catch a baseball fired into the crowd by a man dressed like a 12th century monk. P.S. we were of course all drunk. It seemed like a thousand Irish J1ers had descended on Petco Park that night, and for those Americans unused to the Irish, it was a night to remember no doubt. Long after the players had walked from their bases and called it a night, Irish twenty-somethings chanted and rocked the stadium like it was our own. The fans went home that night to Fields of Athenry ringing in their ears.¬†For our antics, we showed up on highlight reels the following day.¬†Ol√©, Ol√©, Ol√©, I believe they say.

july

As a group, we had a sort of thing going that we were “good at the J1”. We got an apartment within a week, and within two weeks we were all employed. Social security numbers and bank accounts came easy to us. We were efficient and organised. It was kinda funny. And of course the J1, if it turns out like that, can feel kinda like a dream. There aren’t any real “responsibilities” and your main concerns are enjoyment and food. But the J1 isn’t a dream. It’s real life, and on the 16th of June we were reminded of that. I still remember the sinking feeling in my gut when I left work at 9am (was working split shifts at this point, one of which was 6.30-9) and saw I had 9 missed calls from my Dad and a host of messages. I had only one thought: something has happened at home. As I looked into the texts, most of which simply read “Ring me” or “Ring home”, a friend of mine and Adam’s struck up conversation:

“Have ye heard what happened up in Berkeley last night?”

We had not, and as she told us all of it, I realised those calls and texts weren’t about something back home, they were about me. I quickly rang my Dad and told him I was OK, while still very unsure of what had occurred. When Adam and I got back to the apartment, everybody was frozen. I couldn’t accurately describe to you what the day after the Berkeley tragedy felt like, only to say it was one of the most vulnerable of my life. The entire apartment complex, with well over 500 Irish students, was in mourning. We all joked about how the Americans thought we all knew each other, but that morning it became apparent they weren’t very far wrong. People crowded the computer room eager to hear were their friends OK, or just to answer home that they weren’t involved. Reported as a balcony collapse in “California”, Irish parents were rightly terrified. And as the hours wore on, the numbers who had passed away rose. To know that six people lost their lives on the J1 is heartbreaking. To know it happened just up the coast from us, in what felt like could have been anybody’s apartment, was frightening beyond measure. Of course, to Americans this barely made the news, unlike at home where it was a national tragedy. And so, we Irish felt like we were in a bubble for the next few days, overtaken by grief in a world that continued to turn. Eventually, for us, it had to keep turning too. As the students were all from Dublin, I didn’t expect to know any of them. A few days later, I re-googled the story, and scrolled down through the names. One of them was familiar, even if faintly. I found a picture, and realised it was somebody I’d met at Irish college almost eight years before. I’m not sure he would have remembered me, save as the person who always went on goal in soccer. A Pacific Beach church held a vigil for the six students, which was crowded with Irish in San Diego. In times like that, all we had was each other to band together with. Of course we weren’t involved, but the nearness of the tragedy to our hearts was very real. They were just like us. For them, the J1 was also a dream.

july 3

July rolled around on the J1, and everything kicked into gear. At work, we went from the shy Irish J1 students to a real part of the setup. Now we were working normal hours (whether it was morning or evening), we actually got to be part of the individual camps. For me, that started with camps like Challengers and Soccer Camp, where I got to help win the Spirit Stick two days in a row. The Spirit Stick was as American as it got, decorated by the winning camps and liable to be stolen if let out of a camp counselor’s hands. Spirit Circle was 3pm every day, and there every camp came to perform, compete, and say goodbye for another day. The next day, you might be in Gym 7-12, or High-5 camp for swimming. It was very changeable at first. Of course, within each camp we were kept busy, whether that was organising Arts & Crafts, kicking around on the soccer field or going on field trips to places like the San Diego Ice Arena or the Natural History Museum. Perhaps the best field trip thrown my way to Belmont Park, where rollercoasters overlooked the beach and camp counselors could queue for the rides if they liked. That day unfortunately, I was hungover, and so spent my time with the campers who opted for the arcade. We Irish are tough, but not invincible. As part of camp we were expected to know about a million songs, as any moment might become an impromptu “Bulldog” or a recital of the YMCA song. At first, we Irish shirked the responsibility of joining in if we could, but by the end, we were as loud as everybody else even if half in amusement at ourselves. Those songs came back to the apartment with us, with the Sea World crew liable to groan if myself, Katie, Adam or Aine broke into a “G-double O-D-J-O-B, Good job, good job!”. Even if in individual camps at work, we were still rotated about a lot to cover breaks for regular staff. This was tough. Kids respect authority of those they are used to. As stand-in staff, they ran riot whenever they saw us. Eventually, by mid July we were being placed permanently in camps each week. I had interesting ones like NASA camp, but my favourite will always be “Senior Fun”. Senior Fun(tastic) was the oldest camp in Toby Wells, with kids aged 10 and up. I thought this would be difficult, as I know at aged 10 I was anything but Funtastic. But as I predicted, once the children got used to me, it became remarkable fun. Starting at 6.30am, I used to relish work everyday. Each of them would ask a million questions about Ireland to “Mr.Kyle”, wanting to hear about fairies and the countryside. There were a lot of games of Capture the Flag, Sharks & Minnows and Gaga (which is Israeli dodgeball-very fast, very dangerous). And at the end of it all, I’d sign out and walk out to 7/11 with Adam and Dylan, or maybe Ronan, Conor, Sarah, Rois√≠n or Ciara on occasion. A big gulp was like a tradition for us by the end. It started one morning when I bought a hot dog, and the owner looked at me puzzled and added “You know you can get a big gulp for a penny?” What I’d do to be waiting for the 17:51 bus right now with one of those in my hand. The Senior Fun kids might change every week, but as a rule it was myself, Kristen and Nick as staff and a lot of familiar faces with the kids. There were some so regular they would ask about my weekends, and oh, were the weekends of July good.

july 11

The first was of course, the 4th of July. Myself, Adam, Aine and Katie were all off with no camp at the weekends, and so decided to buy a lot of beer in Food 4 Less and head down to the beach. Clearly, we weren’t affiliated with the holiday, as immediately American’s told us to hide our drink. Luckily we had bought a cooler, and so Aine and I went in search of ice. I’ll admit, I didn’t picture myself lugging a 20 pound bag of ice around when I woke up that morning, least of all down the beach promenade, but the cold beer under the San Diego sun was sheer bliss. The four of us sat there for hours, talking about God knows what as we knocked back our purchases. I hate to be over-dramatic, but that has to rank as the most freedom I’ve ever felt on American soil. And considering they love their freedom, I’ll count it among my better memories.

july 9

July weekends got better and better. Next we were off to the Del Mar fair, where hundreds of stalls of all descriptions packed into a fairground. Everything was deep-fried, or covered in chocolate, or both. San Diego was also of course host to Comic Con, which as a fan of shows like¬†Game of Thrones or¬†The Walking Dead, was a pretty big deal. The streets were lined with Chewbaccas, R2 units, Gandalfs, Spidermans etc. It was a Halloween at 90 degree Fahrenheit all brimming around the San Diego Convention Centre. On the Thursday, when the convention opened, a few of us ventured down for a look. Inadvertently, and a few still deny it, we ended up¬†IN Comic Con. We just walked right in. This wasn’t Irish charm (like that time I got into a high school basketball tournament at SDSU-Go Aztecs!), this was just blind luck. And yet still, I accidentally achieved a sort of dream of mine, and for that I was delighted.

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SeaWorld comes under a lot of flak, but they do treat their employees well. Free San Diego Zoo tickets was just one of the perks, and for anybody who isn’t a zoo expert, it of course ranks as one of if not the world’s best. The day at the zoo was amazing, with animals I’d never even heard of becoming some of my favourite within hours. It wasn’t Fota-half under construction and a bit lifeless. This felt like a jungle you stepped into. It was perhaps only bettered by my visit to SeaWorld itself. Again, say what you want of the park, but it offers a spectacle to its visitors. I was happily splashed by water from the tail of a Killer Whale, which was only the finale of a day that included seeing the seals, staring at the odd Baluga Whales, riding the Manta, getting drenched on Journey to Atlantis or the rapids and hearing Blue Horizon about a hundred times. Myself, Katie, Eimear and Adam had a mega day out.

The great weekends didn’t stop there, with days out at the batting cages, or trips on the Orange Line (what even is the Orange Line in fainess) or visiting University San Diego standing majestically over Morena Linda Vista. And nestled in between all this yours truly changed his age. Well, I didn’t¬†change it, I turned 22. The day of my birthday I went to La Jolla, where the white foam of the Pacific splashed up against golden cliffs and even the ordinary houses were like mansions to us. We went to In Cahoots the night before to celebrate, where the name of the game was line dancing. We were of course useless, but the prospect of it and a 3 dollar beer was enough to make it a regular haunt for us. I remember Adam switching on Taylor Swift’s “feeling 22” and the whole gang gathering around me. It was kind of funny, being presented with a coveted Dairy Milk bar, which to all of us was like a cake from the Gods. By Mid July our staple number of people had jumped to 14, when we were joined by Mark’s girlfriend Kate and their friend Aidan as well as James from our own class. On top of this, one night we found ourselves hosting a massive 17 people in one apartment. That was as high as it ever got, and I’m sure even if I tried to reassure you this was still reasonably comfortable you’d never believe me.

2130 was a hub for us, with all of us spread over San Diego some days. In the apartment, rather than become a hot bed of anger and frustration like you might imagine, it instead became a sanctuary, where we went to escape the day-to-day and just be 11 Irish people all tossed in together. The regularity of it grew one me. I might take a nap in the afternoon after work, then wake up to Aine and the two Fionas coming back from the pool, Michaela just arriving in after work, Eimear and Katie busy making dinner, Fiachra and Mark in conversation on the floor, Adam sorting music on his laptop and Greeny heading out to get Sombreros, and offering us to join him. Of course, any of the roles above might be changed for one another, which was in effect the beauty of it. We were for want of a better word¬†living, and everyday was a new story, a new adventure or a new private joke for 2130. I might wake up to the bathroom flooding some days, but that was few and far between. For the most part, 2130 was a happy place, where every night its inhabitants sat around saying “Fuck you X” with cans of Four Loco in their hands, listening to spooky stories or all huddling up together to watch a movie (Top Gun, The Lion King spring to mind. If we wanted a movie we had to go load it outside the computer room, so it was a big deal for us). The nights out were too numerous to count, with every Thursday having us racing from a tram to get to McFaddens in time, and every other Tuesday getting a tram and a bus so we could go out in Pacific Beach.

Honestly, when people ask me about my J1, they want to hear about my trip to New York, or gambling in Vegas or camping in Yosemite. Those were all amazing, and will be in another entry. That was really¬†travelling, if we’re going to use the strict sense of the word. But it wasn’t the journey. As I’ll remind you, for the journey, we measure in friends-not miles.

In Defence of Worldbuilding

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*The following post involves a terrifying amount of burger/restaurant metaphor*

The last book you read involved worldbuilding. There, I said it.

What’s world building? Well, it’s quite simple. It is literally the process of creating a world for an art form to take place in. Every novel has to have a world, whether it’s Earth or not. World building doesn’t just include the actual physical setting e.g. Hogwarts or Panem, but actually goes much deeper than that.

If you think of the physical setting as a burger bun, then the rest of world building is all that juicy meat and salad that sits right in the middle. I mean sure, the bun is necessary to hold it all together, but when was the last time your stomach really growled over two pieces of bread with a couple sesame seeds on top? What you want is the filling, right?

The filling of a world, however, is seen in the little things: why does nobody walk down 2nd street at night? Why is the grass blue by the lake? How do you get elected to government in the country?

Of course, government is a “big thing”,but in the grand scheme of a novel it could only be a minor feature.

Another question readers commonly have is not what’s in the proverbial burger, but why are we cooking it at all in the first place?

World building is something stereotypically associated with fantasy or sci-fi novels, where in many cases authors have a blank canvas in front of them and just have to dive in and start somewhere. It’s thought that fantasy authors waste hours and hours drooling over languages and maps and leave little time for an actual story to develop. This is an understandable assumption, but one that leaves a lot of novels outside these genres suffering from terrible foundations. It’s all-too-easy for an author in general fiction or romance to play into this and forgo basic research or background detail in favour of characterisation or plot.

But while many readers might argue they never pay much attention to the details built into a world, it is usually the case that the best writers blend these features so seamlessly into a story that the reader often doesn’t even notice they’re there. Instead they get a kind of subconscious knowledge of the world. It’s a bit like Inception. A good book kind of makes you feel like you are in the world and that it was your desire to be there, not the writer’s skill, that got you there. It’s like the waiter telling you he brought you the vegetarian option by mistake right after you’ve tossed aside your napkin thinking you just wolfed down a quarter pounder and cheese. Sure, you feel aggrieved you weren’t right, but didn’t you enjoy it all anyway? ¬†Didn’t all those details taste so good, regardless of whether you profess to like them or not?

That’s what good world building does. But why talk about all the good burgers (reference noted) when it’s the blackened ruins you remember more? So instead of trying to defend world building by showing you the best thing on the menu, I’m gonna go right ahead and point out a few ways you might ruin a summer BBQ and piss off a lot of readers as a result.

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1) “I have bacon and cheese and tomato and lettuce and hot sauce and jalapenos and…and….and”

Nothing says bad world building like not knowing where to draw the line. One minute you’re wondering how big your city is, and the next you’re trying to figure out which tattoos the Grim Gang get when one of their members gets killed. Who are the Grim Gang? I don’t know-literally just made them up. My point is it’s very easy for good and bad writers to just forget they were in the middle of a story and fall into the pit of “well I can make FOUR gangs where you only had three. I must be better”. Details aren’t merited by their quantity. Any good reader wants something a) innovative and b) well presented, which leads me onto my next point

2)”Can I get you something to drink? By the way the special is a chicken fillet burger”

Your details are only as good as your delivery, and all that excellent creative ability goes to waste if you just walk around the restaurant that is your novel shouting “THE SPECIAL IS CHICKEN FILLET”. Maybe the reader might catch on you’re forcing the point.

What you want is for them to spy it on the corner of the menu, or catch a glimpse of it on a sign on the way in. Make the reader feel it is almost hidden; almost left in by accident rather than you just screaming it in their face. They’re a lot of ways a writer can dangle out this “oops did I mention that my apologies” hook, like blurring details into dialogue rather than narration, or creating plot strings that might nudge in a couple aspects of your world into the reader’s field of vision. Whatever option you choose, it’s important to remember to mix it up. Even when you use a trick, if it’s consistent throughout a novel it eventually becomes predictable and a little annoying.

3)”Let me take your coat. By the way the dessert is pavlova”

Dear God, your reader has only sat down for their dinner and already you’re telling them about dessert menus and the service charge.¬†Slow it down there. I mean, those details weren’t even in the original burger metaphor so this is clearly world building out of control. This is referred to in world building circles *adjusts glasses* as infodumping. Infodumping is where you have a large amount of detail the reader needs to grasp the story but rather than dole it out piece by piece you just want to bring them the entire four course dinner (burger et al) to their table at once and hope they don’t kick up a fuss about it. Long story short, they usually do. Good writers use the length of their novel to their advantage. I’ve read a lot of novels lately that have been exploiting infodumping to appeal to a select portion of readers who collect facts about a world like gold dust. Most people won’t enjoy the overload though, so best to leave the bill at least until after they’ve finished their soup.

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4)”The bun is bread. Bread is flour. Flour is wheat. Wheat is cereal…”

This kind of ties in with number one, but here the problem isn’t the amount of stuff you’re packing into the burger as much as how much you’re talking about that damn burger. Think of it like a menu listing. A good menu quips a short two-liner on each item, and that seems to be enough to grab the attention of 99% of restaurant goers. What you want to avoid as a writer is writing a page on every single ingredient like people will flip out if they don’t know. You have to give the customer some credit (warning don’t give them real credit you need money). All readers/ customers are coming into your novel with a basic working knowledge, and if you keep spoonfeeding them they’re gonna want to punch you at some point (love how spoonfeeding works for restaurants here too, as an aside).

5)”Ya so that’s the burger. Meat and bun.”

As a converse to number four, don’t skim all the way back either. You still want your burger to be juicy and palatable. So invest your time in innovating. Bacon in a burger? Game changer. Somebody must have come up with it. The same goes for world building. Fan-favourites such as dragons and alternative universes all had to have started somewhere. So as a writer, try be the somewhere. If you want your world to be more than just a burger, then go ahead and start creating. At the end of the day, you’ll always find people who’ll eat it. Don’t try cook your burger like the place down the street just because they seem to have a staple crowd. For whatever reason, in a lot of cases people just won’t buy yours.

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6) “This is red onion not white onion?”

One of the biggest parts of world building is keeping a tab on it. Just go ask G.R.R Martin how his burger is coming along. You best believe he has to use one of those fancy sticks to keep that mess together. Anyway, if you want to keep a reader in that state of “oh I’m in a restaurant this is great I’m not paying through the roof for this” (commonly referred to as a state of disbelief), then you have to be bringing your A-game. No chef likes to see a burger come back in the door of the kitchen in the hands of a startled waiter. If you’re gonna do it, do it right the first time. Keep accurate accounts of place names, maps, customs etc etc. Don’t try keep all the ingredients in your head. Write down anything you need for your novel and if it relates to anything else, then make a note of that too. It’s usually something really stupid you mess up e.g. red onion-white onion (seen in a novel for example as somebody travelling 100 miles¬†far too fast). It’s very rare you actually are so clued out that you forget the actual burger.

So, as you can see, creating a world isn’t as easy as bun, meat, salad, bun. It takes a good bit of prep work and if not done right can literally blow up right in your face. The best way to move forward is have a system and stick to it (but hey, still leave room for a little flair here and there). World building is a wonderful tool to have as a writer, and one that a lot of readers (either consciously or subconsciously) will welcome time and time again. No matter what genre you’re in, consider it a valid part of your work and invest time into making the all important transition from built-world to world-in-story. Remember, those burgers won’t cook themselves.

Order up!

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