Rodney Franklin was a happy man. Thirty years out of the Marine Corps, he kept to himself except for a Friday night beer in the nearest bar, ran his farm single handed when he could and hired in some help for the jobs he couldn’t manage. When he first bought the farm in ’72 some of the locals laughed that he always hired in help to slaughter his livestock rather than doing it himself, but once he told a few people he’d seen enough death in Vietnam and would see no more, the story got round and people stopped laughing.

He was checking the foundations for a new hog pen when he was disturbed from his work by a voice from the past.

‘Well hello Mr Franklin. How are you today?’

Rodney turned slowly, knowing yet still dreading who he was going to see.

‘Lenny Bertrand. Back again?’

‘Why yes Mr Franklin. I think it’s about time you made me a small gift, don’t you?’

‘I paid you, Lenny. I paid you ten years ago and almost every year since. Why am I still paying you?’

‘Because you really don’t want Sherriff Hunter to know what you did with Mrs Hunter at the barn dance all those years ago, now do you? I’ve kept my end of the bargain. I left town with the money you gave me then, I only come back when I need a top up and no one ever knows I’ve been. Unless you tell them?’

‘I don’t tell nobody nothin’ Lenny. But I don’t see why I should keep paying you year after year for one fumble in my truck. Anyhow, Elaine Hunter’s been dead these last five years.

‘You think the Sherriff cares about that? You think he wants her memory spoiled? I don’t want much Mr Franklin, just enough to see me south and set up for the winter.’

‘Now that’s all you want. But you’ll be back. Again and again. You’re going to keep coming until I die aren’t you?’

‘Or until the Sherriff dies I guess, yes.’

Or until you die The thought popped into Rodney’s head.

‘Wait there. I’ll get your money, you bloodsucker.’ He said, and made to walk towards the farm house. Lenny turned, even he had the decency to give the man he was blackmailing some privacy. That’s why he didn’t see Rodney sneak up behind him and hit him over the back of the head with a shovel. He fell in to the open trench. Rodney looked over, saw the unmoving body and, realising what he’d done, retched up his lunch.

He ran to the house, thinking of different excuses he could give to the Sherriff for finding the dead tramp. He considered throwing the body to the hogs, he knew they would eat almost anything. In the end he decided to simply cover up the body. He couldn’t bring himself to look at it again, so he started up his digger and half filled the trench with hard core to form the foundation of his new hog pen.

 *

Rodney’s success continued. For five more years he lived on his farm. His hogs thrived, he made enough money and carried on living his simple life. He drove his truck to the nearest bar one night a week as he had always done, drank a couple of beers and drove home again. If anyone had known him well enough they may have noticed that he had something on his mind most of the time, but everyone had their own worries and anyway no one was that close to him, so no one noticed.

 *

But something was playing on Rodney’s mind. He’d read Poe. He could hear Lenny’s heart beat every time he went to the hog pen. He knew that one day he would have to move the body or go mad. Finally the day came. He could stand it no longer. Rodney let loose the hogs and drove his digger through the pen walls. Then he dug. He dug down to where the body should have been and saw nothing. He dug further, and still no body. He got out of the digger and dug with a shovel. Still nothing. Finally he started scraping at the ground with his bare hands. He was on his hands and knees when the trench collapsed in on him. If anyone had been there they would have seen a filthy, crying man shouting over and over again ‘She wasn’t worth this! She wasn’t worth this!’

 *

The Sherriff arrived a couple of hours later. Someone had called him after seeing hogs loose on the highway. Sherriff Hunter recognised that they were Rodney’s. He saw the damaged pens and re-opened foundations but could not work out why Rodney would have done that much damage. He assumed some sort of accident or vandalism. Worried, he went looking for Rodney. When he couldn’t find him around the farm he eventually called for some help and dug down in to the reopened trench. That’s where they found his body.

No one in town ever worked out what happened or why. The only man who might have known saw a news report of the mysterious death while nursing a sandwich and coffee in a Salvation Army hostel two towns away. Lenny Bertrand rubbed the scar on the back of his head, hidden by his long greasy hair. Yet again he thanked his lucky stars that the one farmer who tried to kill him was probably the only one on the country too squeamish to check he was dead before leaving him alone in the trench with enough time to climb out and slip away.

(c) Chris Johnson 2019

 

The following is a repost from a closed blog.

There are various posts that do the rounds on writers’ and artists’ sites and forums which make fun of the idea of working for ‘exposure’. They are often phrased as adverts from the artist asking for tradesmen to work for free or simply pointing out that, in no other industry, is it so common for people to be asked to work free. Largely, I agree. Before I go any further I would say that any cheeky offer, particularly to someone for whom a creative art is their main income, should be treated with the contempt it deserves. But when is an offer cheeky and when is it something that should be considered – even welcome? As a writer I, like all artists, need exposure. So would I be so wrong to dismiss such an offer out of hand?

On reflection there are probably three key things I (and other artists) should consider before turning down such an offer.

1 – How much exposure?

2 – Should I consider doing this as a favour?

3 – Is it a legitimate business to business deal?

How much exposure?

My point here is this. If a magazine with a multi thousand person readership, especially my target audience, offers me the option to publish a story, unpaid, ‘for the exposure’ of course I’m going to take it. Let’s face it, lots of writers provide free content to magazines and blogs etc. when they start out. I accept, there’s probably a cut off point when the cost of production outweighs the savings gained from getting free advertising. And I can’t tell you where that is. For example, I might work free for a start up magazine which is aimed directly at my target audience as it’s worth taking a chance on the sales that could follow. It’s getting free advertising. But I’d be less likely to do so for a random start-up with no indication that my work will get to a relevant target audience, or any audience at all.

Should I consider doing it as a favour?

Human, and business, relationships are never cut and dried. If a friend is starting up an imprint or a magazine or blog I’d be far more tempted to do them a favour than I would a random stranger. Things I do all day every day for a salary I may also do for free for a charity. Likewise, if you have a chance and the opportunity, what’s wrong with giving someone else a start? Who’s to say that the random stranger who is asking for your help now isn’t going to be the next big publisher/agent/whatever. Sometimes it’s worth playing a hunch.

Is it a legitimate business to business deal?

Ok, strictly business to business is a sales transaction, one business selling to another. But there is also the option of fair exchange. Ten hours of my work for ten hours of yours. I write the text for your website, you take my author pictures and no money changes hands. And this loops back to point one. If you are treating your art as a business, then working for exposure is a legitimate business to business transaction if the business you are delivering it to is in the business of giving exposure.

There is probably a fourth option. Do I just want to do it anyway? Most hobby artists effectively give their material away. My Blog is me giving away my work – arguably to build an audience in the hope they will buy my books in the future, but also because I want to share my creativity with the world. So, is giving my work away through another route, ‘for exposure’ any different?

My advice, therefore, is this. By all means decline offers to work ‘for exposure’ if you don’t think the person offering is genuinely able to offer the exposure they appear to be claiming to offer. But don’t decline such an offer without any thought as to the value.

© Chris Johnson 2018

In the UK there were reported to be a little over 4,600 local libraries, run by local authorities to national standards in 2002/3 (statists.com). The latest estimate I found (theguardian.com) was that in October 2017 there were 3,850 and that approximately 500 of these are now run by volunteers, rather than the local authorities and paid librarians. I’m sure these are still run to a very high standard. But they are not obliged to run to any national standard. I’ve also observed, but not found any data, that many local libraries have increasingly limited opening hours.

Why should I, or anyone, care? Ignoring the argument from academia about the use of libraries rather than the internet for research (which is a big enough subject for another post on its own) I think there are three big reasons that libraries are vitally important.

  1. They provide free (or at least free at the point of access) reading materials. I grew up going to the local library once a week and getting library books. If I didn’t have that access I doubt I would have been able to read anywhere near as widely as I have. For some the library is the only access they have to books.
  2. They are a community resource. As well as the location where books, music and these days free internet access can be found, libraries also offer some combinations of meeting rooms, social spaces, classes and courses, a warm and safe space for people to study, a place to read newspapers and magazines etc. etc.
  3. A skilled librarian (paid or volunteer) is a joy to talk with. They can help you to find a good book to read, research materials, local knowledge and a wealth of other things. Google is simply not a skilled librarian, it is a blunt tool. A Google search will find you a million hits, a librarian can often offer the one thing you actually want.

There is another reason why I, as a writer, think that libraries are massively important. I guess that everyone knows that if you buy a book from a retailer the author gets paid. What you may not know is that if you borrow a book from a library the author gets paid. We’re talking pennies a copy (7.67 pence per loan on a library book in England and Wales up to a maximum £6.600 per author according to theguardian.com). But, it’s income. By comparison, if you buy a book from a charity shop the author gets nothing. (I’m not having a go a charity shops, I buy books from them all the time. I just don’t think that people always realise that re-sold books don’t make any money for the author.)

Authors are not, generally, rolling in money. We’re not all JK Rowling. Far from it, most authors, even those published by big name companies and whose name you may know, make pennies per book sale and less than minimum wage if you divide their income by the number of hours it takes to research, write, edit and promote a book. So why not throw an author a bone. Even if you borrow a book and return it unread (not that I recommend it) the author is still getting their 7.76 pence. If you have an e-reader and subscribe to an unlimited service (such as Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited) the author is paid per page view, so the author gets a return on your loan. If you only read a few pages (or if you read offline and your reader doesn’t register the page views) the author gets less in return, but will still get something.

At the moment there seems to be far more supply of authors than there is demand for books. The economics don’t stack up. But if the good authors are not making money (or at least some return) for their efforts they’ll stop writing. If you want to keep reading quality books, but can’t or don’t want to buy full price titles from retailers, please keep supporting your library so that they can, in turn, support authors. By all means buy books from charity shops, lend them to your friends and pass them around – above all authors want to be read and build an audience – but once in a while, and as often as you can, think about feeding an author and borrow or buy a book through a route that means they get some return please?

All numbers and links in this item are for UK or England and Wales. If you want to find your local library in England and Wales go to www.gov.uk/local-library-servicesIn Scotland it’s www.scottishlibraries.organd in Northern Ireland www.librariesni.org.ukI’d love readers from other territories to add links below to their country’s library service if you have one.

I’m off to swap my library books. Please join me.

 

© Chris Johnson 2018

I miss the old St Pancras

Hiding in the archway from the rain

The darkness, walls embedded

With the soot of a million trains

 

The newspaper stands’ patina

The noise, deisel fumes, dust

‘Lend us 50p mister?’

Seats all plastic and rust

 

The new station is clean and tidy

Well policed, welcoming, smart

But it’s lost some if its character

And replaced it with modern art

 

I miss the old St Pancras

The gritty, noir place of my youth

Today I closed my eyes on the platform

And returned there for a moment or two.

 

I was lucky enough to be in London on Thursday, a trip I make periodically for work. Whiling away some time waiting for a train I tried to recall the ‘old’ St Pancras, the one I remember from exciting trips as a teenager and early work trips. The poem pretty much wrote itself over a coffee.

(c) Chris Johnson 2018

Meg Johnson and I have a book out! It is called ‘Rose Scar’ and we’d love you to read it.

The graffiti stood out. It was the only colour on the concrete city wall. Children threw insults at men in grey uniforms trying to clean it off. They had the wrong tools for the job. But it had to be done. So they ignored the children and worked on.

A mile away the men would have recognised the tattoo on a girl’s arm as she paid for her tram ticket home. It was the same image they were washing off the wall. On the other side of the wall, the girl’s parents were totally unaware.

Set in the near future, Rose Scar tells the story of the tattooed girl and how her search for her parents leads to action, adventure, a dangerous romance…and massive chaos.

Praise for Rose Scar: ‘A very good story line, great imagination and very well written. It would appeal to to all ages from teenage upwards. There’s mystery, suspense, romance, bullying and politics, very topical too!’

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You can get an e-book or paperback from Amazon around the world (UK links below):

Amazon.co.uk Paperback version

Amazon.co.uk e-Book version

Kindle Unlimited customers can read it for free!

If you do read this, or any other independent author’s work, please leave a review. Reviews are worth as much to indie authors as sales.

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2017

The following story is a guest post, written by Meg Johnson. It was inspired by this Writing prompt from Pinterest.

Meg has co-authored a book ‘Rose Scar’ which is due to be published soon.

 

 

Mr Henry Brookwood was reading the newspaper for the tenth time that day.

‘Absolute rubbish. They make me out to be a fool!’ He shouted. He scrunched up the paper and threw it across the room. ‘I saw them. Why don’t they believe me?’

His secretary entered the room, picked it up with a sigh and put it back on his desk.

‘Go home Miss Berling, and take that rubbish with you.’

‘Thank you, sir. Good night.’ As she got her coat and hat she glanced at the story that had so enraged her employer.

Once again last night the wealthy Mr Henry Brookwood from Brookwood and Sons contacted this newspaper and the police. He claims that is late wife, Clara, and two sons, Charles and Samuel, are still alive and walking the streets at night although they were found dead in the Brookwood household only five days ago by the maid. The police are investigating their murder. Mr Henry Brookwood has declined to be interviewed by this newspaper, but has sent regular letters.

 

Henry worked late into the night. Every time his thoughts turned to home he found something else to do. No point in going back to that empty house, or worse, a house full of grieving friends and relatives all after tittle tattle! He convinced himself. Finally, with clocks striking midnight across the city, he packed away his papers. He placed on his coat and his top hat, grabbed his cane and left his office at Brookwood and sons locking the door behind him. No one would be around this late at night he thought. No need to speak to anyone.

It was a cold and blustery winter’s evening with a typical London fog. As he walked his mind started wandering. It drifted to thoughts of his wife and sons from years before when Samuel was just a baby and Charles was a young boy starting at school. As the happy thoughts came back to him Henry saw the fog clear for a moment in the wind. On the street ahead of him he saw his young wife and holding the hand of a young boy, and pushing a pram. He shouted and walked a little faster but as he got towards them the fog moved again and they disappeared.

Henry’s shoulders sagged as he walked the next few streets slower than before. His eyes moistened, making it even more difficult to see. His mind wandered again and he thought of the times he’d spent teaching his teenage sons about his business and that they would one day takeover after him. His thoughts were disturbed as he heard his name being called. It was the voice of Clara calling out to him, he was convinced. He stopped and looked around him, blinking to clear his vision. At first he could see nothing, but then he heard his name again, this time from across the street. As he looked the fog drifted away and he saw his wife and teenage sons. But by the time he ran across the road to them they were no longer there. Henry turned and in despair walked the rest of the way home as fast as he could. He tried to shut out all thoughts by singing hymns to himself.

When Henry finally got home he got the keys from his coat pocket to open the door. At first, hands shaking, he fumbled the key into the lock but couldn’t turn it. He realised that it was already unlocked. Strange he thought the maid should have already have gone to her rest by this hour. I will need to speak to her about that. he thought as he walked to the drawing room, planning to take a small brandy and cigar to try and help him sleep. But as he opened to door he saw four police constables standing, hats in hands looking down at the floor and the police commissioner standing by the fire.

‘Henry Brookwood I am arresting you on suspicion of murder of your wife, Clara and your sons, Charles and Samuel.’ The Commissioner stated calmly, adding, more quietly, ‘I’m sorry Brookwood, old man. I can’t stop this, so thought it was better to do it myself.’

But Henry had stopped listening. All he could her was the cries of his sons shouting Father, you’re home! and his wife patently telling them to stop shouting. They sounded so real to him that he was smiling as he was handcuffed and led away.

 

(c) Meg Johnson 2016

 

IMG_0046sOne of my stories was rejected this week. I got some really good feedback, and a request to submit more work to the same publisher – so I’m happy enough. But it did get me thinking. I wrote the piece with the specific publication in mind. I read a couple of their recent publications, then followed a story arc and broad plot that aligned with, rather than copied, their apparent preferred style. Essentially, I wrote to their genre. But did I write a cliché? The feedback said that the publisher didn’t want my story as the pay-off was something they’d seen before. Fair comment, and really useful to know when I either re-write that piece or write something else for them (or anyone else for that matter).

But it does re-raise a question that I’ve been asking myself for a while. I write genre fiction. Most fiction writers do (whether they like it or not). But we all want to avoid clichés (I think it’s illegal to write that without adding ‘like the plague’). Readers want the hero to complete their quest, the white hat to win, the anti-hero to both succeed and reform or the troubled detective to solve the murder. That’s genre. But when does writing genre slip into cliché or even worse, plagiarism? When does one hero become a poor imitation of another, and a third, and so on?

Very few writers set out to plagiarise others (except, perhaps, for some re-tellings of classic stories – which is probably not plagiarism…) but there are only so many broad plots, only so many ways that a small cast of characters can interact and only so many twists which actually make sense.

Here’s the question, then. How do I square the circle? How do I (or anyone else) write in genre and to house style without becoming repetitive or essentially copying what’s gone before. How do we write something new without going so far out of genre that we fall outside the requirements of the publisher and audience we’re aiming at?

I’d love to hear your thoughts – as readers, do you want to be shocked or do you want your stories to follow the usual rules of your preferred genre? And writers, do we need to be brave and break common genres? Or are we writing into ever decreasing opportunities to retell the same broad plots? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments!