Short Stories – The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories

This post is part of a year-long series about short stories.  Read about my “Year of the Short Story” HERE.

The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories by Mark Twain (1872) – A collection of 30 short stories from one of the greatest American authors.  Twain is in many ways the most American of our native born writers.  His subjects, point of view and sense of humor are rooted in the still young nation he observed.  In these stories he explores a wide range of topics.  His storytelling style remains crisp even 150 years later.  Following the Civil War the nation is beginning to feel its oats.  Industry and business are beginning to boom at the international level.  The American begins to travel more, and be seen.

Keep Calm and Focus on the Short Stories

And Twain has fun with one and all.

My favorites here are:

  • “The $30,000 Bequest” – A married couple that there is a possibility of a great deal of money coming to them.  Just the promise is enough to put them off the rails.
  • “Italian Without A Master” and “Italian With Grammar” – Twain exercises his well developed sense of whimsey.  This is the bold American taking on the language of Italy as only a bold American might.
  • “General Washington’s Negro Body Servant” – The death of an old black man, reputed to have worked for the first President, gives Twain the opportunity to wield some subtle jabs at the growing American mythology surround our nation’s founders.
  • “An Entertaining Article” –  Twain takes the opportunity to publicly examine a less than flattering review.  An English critic took great exception to the American author’s “An Innocent Abroad”.  Many authors wish they had the wit, the writing skill and the outright gumption to do what Twain does here.
  • “A Humane Word From Satan” – “The editors of Harper’s Weekly have reason to believe this letter is from Mark Twain”.  That introductory note that went with the original publication of the short story tell you everything you need to know about the story.  Twain is preparing to puncture a few more pompous balloons.

I enjoyed almost every story here.  The places my attention stumbled were stories that went after specific public figures.  Twain assumes a base level of familiarity in his readers that I don’t have a century and a half later.  I enjoyed the writing, even if the details of the story eluded me.

Twain is the first great American writer from an America that begins to resemble ours.  He wasn’t born on the East Coast and his writing takes us into the everyday life in the nation.   Here’s a great collection to add to your list.


Writing – Afterwords


If you read my short fiction collection “Shorts” (and I would love for you to do that!), you will discover that I have a small idiosyncrisy.  I like including afterwords for each of the stories.  I have been told by some folks that this is a terrible thing to do.  The feeling is that a story should stand on its own, and once the author finishes the story,  nothing else should need to be said.

I don’t care.

I have read plenty of “classic” collections that are just the stories and enjoyed them immensely.  But some of my favorite collections include addenda from the author about the story.  What inspired it, stories about how they wrote it, or what happened after they wrote it.  So when the time came to publish my own collection there was no question what I was going to do.

There would be afterwords.

There is a decision there.  For AFTERwords rather than FOREwords for each story.  When you come into a story, I want you to enjoy it as it is.  Find the meaning that it offers up for you.  Sometimes that’s different from my intent.  Which is super!  After you’ve enjoyed it, then I’d like to start a little conversation about it.  Here’s where the story came from (in the case of the story “The Sniper Dream” it’s a little creepy), why I wrote it, what it means to me.  Maybe that makes you go back and look again, maybe it matches perfectly with your impression, or maybe it leads you to say “You were trying for WHAT?  Missed the mark on that one!”.  I’m OK with all of those answers.

My hope is that it adds a little something to the experience.  That you’ll feel like you understand me and my writing a little better, maybe feel like you know me a little better.  I don’t know if that’s the goal for any other writer on the planet.  It’s my goal.

The only goal I can concern myself with as a writer.

So I hope you grab a copy of the book, I hope you enjoy the stories, and I hope the Afterwords add a little something as well.



Writing – The Gathering

Mary Alice Johnson stopped in mid-transit between the kitchen and the living room. Crouching at the end of the hallway was her five-year-old son, Stewie. He was sitting back on his heels, knees up under his chin with his arms wrapped around his legs. It was an unusual position to find the boy. What caught her attention was that he wasn’t looking down the hall. He sat just past the edge of the wall, his shoulder at the corner, but he was staring across the opening. A locked in stare at … nothing. The dining room straight ahead, the hall to his right, the door to the kitchen to his left. Both the hall and dining room were dark, the light of the kitchen just dim from this angle. She could see the nervous tension in the boy’s body. She stood there for a moment, but he took no apparent notice of her. That was odd as well. His constant greetings, a day filled with “Hi Mommy!” every time they crossed paths was background noise to her now. All the more obvious by its absence.

“Honey, are you okay?”

Stewie’s gaze never wandered. A quick nod of head and a grim set to his mouth was his only response. He remained unnaturally still. This was the boy who wore her out on a daily basis with a supply of energy that seemed endless. Now he just sat and stared. Mary Alice watched him for a moment more. He didn’t seem distressed, just…focused.

“Okay, then.”

Her tone showed her doubt on that point. Mary Alice continued into the living room but didn’t take her usual chair. Shifting to another (less comfortable) one put her son in her eye line. Sometimes it was best just to let a child alone to do their thing. All the experts seemed to agree. At least the ones she liked. She tried to read but the boy’s stillness nagged at her.
An hour later, Stewie had shifted twice, seeming to ease the pressure on his legs but remained in place. When Peter Johnson walked through the door, she waved him urgently over.

“Hey, beautiful. What’s…” She shushed him and motioned for him to come closer.

“Stewie has been sitting there”, she motioned to their son, “for an hour now. He hasn’t moved. I asked him if he was OK and he said he was, but he hasn’t moved. I’m starting to worry.”

As she spoke, Peter considered the boy. A normal day ended with Stewie rushing him as soon as he walked through the door, tales of the boy’s adventures pouring out. He noted the look of tension there as well. Almost as if the boy were waiting for something.

“Was he OK the rest of the day?”

His wife nodded.

“Just a regular day, till I found him there an hour ago.”

He walked over and knelt next to the boy.

“Hey, Stewie-Be-Doo. What’s up? You got Mom worried.”

The childhood nickname, now much despised, got him a sideways look of reproach. That’s good, Peter thought, he’s not off in never-never land.

“I’m watching. For Grampy.”

Grampy was Peter’s father Robert. A year ago his health had started to fail. After much negotiation with both his father and his wife, Peter had moved the old man into the spare bedroom. It made the house a little cramped, but Robert worked to be useful to the limits of his ability. Mary Alice came to appreciated having some help with her son in the following months. While the older man couldn’t run an play, he served as a perfect audience for the youngster. Always willing to “Watch this!”, and with the patience to endure endless stories, “Grampy” gave her free time in her schedule almost every day now. Grandfather and grandson had formed a bond that touched Peter. He and his father had spent years banging heads and the boy had strengthened their relationship, too. It had been a wonderful change for them all.

“You know Grampy is always glad to see you. You don’t have to wait here. Go check if he’s awake and go see him.”

Stewie shook his head emphatically.

“I’m not lookin’ to see Grampy. He don’t feel good. So he’s sleepin’. He told me to keep my eyes open. To watch.”

Peter Johnson frowned, looking towards the door at the end of the hall. The boy tired the old man most days. It wasn’t unusual for Peter to find him taking a nap just before dinner. This watching game was new, however. His father liked to tease the boy, but it was always in fun. This felt mean and that was worrisome in a completely different way. Peter kept an eye out for any further changes in his father’s health, especially mentally. Since the move, and the interaction with the boy, Robert had seemed to improve mentally. During a discussion with the older man’s doctor, Peter had been told that these changes can happen suddenly. He turned his attention to the boy again.

“Watching for what, big guy?”

The boy’s eyes flicked to the side to look at him for a second or two. Then back.


Peter was back to his own childhood in an instant. Gremlins. He was roughly Stewie’s age when the old man had told him that story. When Peter walked past the end of the hallway, or through any dimly lit place, he thought he saw things. Just in the corner of his eye were faces. They grinned and made faces at him from corners and doorways. If he looked toward them, they disappeared. Finally, he asked his father about the little faces he could see out of the corner of his eye. He expected to be told it was nothing, but to his surprise, his father took him seriously.

“You can only see them in the corner of your eye, right. If you turn to look they’re gone.”

He remembered, nodding solemnly. Exactly. Robert Johnson told his son they were gremlins, small spirits that lived where people did. They were mostly harmless, just playing tricks like moving things around so you couldn’t find them when you need them. A gremlin would try to distract you so you might stumble or forget what you were doing. It became a family joke when things went wrong. “Damn gremlins!” He still caught himself saying it sometimes. He nodded to his son.

“Little guys, in the corners of your eyes, right?”

Stewie’s eyes grew larger and he nodded vigorously. “Grampy told me about ‘em. He says I need to watch.”

Peter smiled. Thank God, nothing worse than that. “Yeah, he taught me about them, too. I was just about your age.” He ruffled his son’s hair. “But they’re just silly little troublemakers. You don’t need to stand guard.”

Stewie’s face grew determined. He shook his head firmly as he settled back into position. “Grampy says they’re starting to gather. I have to watch for that.”

When gremlins gather. He hadn’t thought about that part of the story in years. One day when Peter was a few years older, his father had sat him down. There was a serious look on his face.

There was something he hadn’t told Peter about gremlins. He was too little then, but it was time for him to know. How many gremlins had Peter ever seen at once? The boy thought for a moment. Three. The most he had ever seen was three. His father nodded. That was good. He needed to notice; if he ever saw them start to gather in larger numbers, Peter should tell his father. Peter nodded solemnly again. What did it mean when they gather? Robert crouched in front of the boy, putting a hand on each shoulder. That moment, which he hadn’t thought about in years, was suddenly vivid again. His father looked him straight in the eyes.

“When gremlins gather, someone is about to die.”

A chill ran down Peter’s spine. “Tell me what happened today, Stewie.” The boy turned and looked at him.

“I walked by and saw about six of them. So I ran down to tell Grampy.”

Peter could see his son was upset.

“That’s when Grampy told me to watch.”

Peter stood up, staring down the hall.

The dark and empty hall that led to his father’s room.

“Tell me what you see now, Stewie.”

Please say nothing, please say nothing, the thought repeated in his mind as he stepped into the hallway.

“There are lots of them, Daddy. Dozens and dozens…”

Peter Johnson took a step into the hallway.

“Not that way, Daddy.”

He looked down at Stewie who was looking back at him now, tears streaming down his face. The boy’s arm was pointing toward the kitchen. Peter was confused for a second, then turned toward the living room. Mary Alice was gone. She must have moved while he was talking to the boy.

There was a crash in the kitchen.

Peter Johnson turned and ran.

Writing – For The Love Of…Reading

My guess is that most of us, perhaps all of us, began our love of writing from a love of reading.

I do not remember a time when I couldn’t read.  I do not remember a time when I was not surrounded by books.

My parents were both readers.  Bookcases were always part of the decor of our home.  Growing up in the ’60s that included the classic brick and board version.  We had to have a place for the books.  They ranged from the Colliers Encyclopedia, Time/Life books on the physical world and American Heritage books on history to all kinds of fiction.  My mother was a fan of popular fiction and romance novels.  She would check them out at the library by the grocery bag full.


Which brings us to the real “hero” of this story.  The library.  My first memory of a library that impressed me was the one at Gouvenour P. Hance Elementary School in Gibsonia PA.  The room was the size of a small classroom, but it held more books than my fourth grader eyes had ever seen.   And I could borrow them.  All of them (eventually), if I wanted.

It was an epiphany.

From that moment on, libraries have been one of my favorite places on earth.

Later on, I would discover a larger library at both Pine Junior High School and Richland High School.  I would explore the wider selections at the Richland Public library (now the Northern Tier Library).  I’m not sure I have ever been without a library card with some or several, libraries at any time in my life.  At least not by choice.

My love affair with books and libraries continues to today.  When I move to a new area one of the first things I do is to find the local temple of books and gain admission.  I was blessed to live near the Prendergast Library in Jamestown, NY for three decades.  Today I can access both the Chesterfield County Public Library System and the Richmond Public Library. With ready access to ebooks, I am never out of reading material.

But there is still something special about sitting in a quiet library, surrounded by books.



Short Stories – The Djinn Falls In Love and Other Stories

This post is part of a year-long series about short stories.  Read about my “Year of the Short Story” HERE.

The Djinn Falls In Love and Other Stories by Mahvesh Murad, K. J. Parker, Kuzhali Manickavel, Maria Dahvana Headley (2017) – A collection of stories from around the world focusing on the djinn, the magical spirits from Arabian and Muslim mythology.  From breakthrough writers to the world-renowned, like Neil Gaiman, this is a fascinating and sometimes challenging collection of stories.

  • Keep Calm and Focus on the Short Stories
    •  Amal El-Mohtar — A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds
    • Catherine King — Queen of Sheba
    • Claire North — Hurrem and the Djinn
    • E.J. Swift — The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice
    • Helene Wecker — Majnun
    • Hermes (trans. Robin Moger) — The Djinn Falls in Love
    • Jamal Mahjoub — Duende 2077
    • James Smythe — The Sand in the Glass is Right
    • J.Y. Yang — Glass Lights
    • Kamila Shamsie — The Congregation
    • Kirsty Logan — The Spite House
    • K.J. Parker — Message in a Bottle
    • Kuzhali Manickavel — How We Remember You
    • Maria Dahvana Headley — Black Powder
    • Monica Byrne — Authenticity
    • Nada Adel Sobhi — Time is a Teacher
    • Neil Gaiman — Somewhere in America
    • Nnedi Okorafor — History
    • Saad Hossein — Bring Your Own Spoon
    • Sami Shah — REAP
    • Sophia Al-Maria — The Righteous Guide of Arabsat
    • Usman Malik — Emperors of Jinn

This is a highly recommended collection from just last year.  For most westerners, the “djinn”, are the “genies” of A Thousand and One Nights and the variations on the theme.  As with so many cultural items picked up along the way, our understanding of the character is largely reduced to a cartoon.  The Djinn can be found in cultures all around the world, and they are a multi-faceted concept.  This collection offers a wonderful insight into them.

Every offering is written with great skill, and I was challenged to expand my understanding along the way.  Which is what great storytelling always does.  Some of the stories touched me more deeply than others.

My favorites here are:

  • “Reap” – In some ways the least”challenging” of the stories.  Not because of the writing but because the story of U.S. military operators directing drones in Afghanistan is very familiar.  What they see through the eyes of their drone is something else entirely.
  • “Majnun” – One of the djinn has turned away from his kind and become a human who exorcises djinn from other humans.  His confrontation with his ancient beloved is beautiful and heartbreaking.
  • “A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds” – This is a stunning piece of writing that shows the djinn fleeing from one form in our world to another trying to survive.
  • “Message In a Bottle” – a scientist has the cure for a worldwide plague.  It is sealed inside a bottle.  The question is this, is it the cure for the disease inside, or the pestilence that will destroy the world entirely?

I could list almost every story here as a favorite.  There is just a handful that didn’t connect with me.  But none of them left me feeling that I had wasted my time reading them.

Looking for something new and different?  Here’s a great collection to add to your list.

Writing – We Don’t Need No Stinking Rules!

I am fascinated and troubled by many posts I see from new/aspiring/beginner writers on some of the writing social media sites I frequent.  There is a recurring theme of “What are the rules for…?”.  How many words in a chapter, how many chapters in a novel,  what’s the “right way” to write such and such.

It just makes me shake my head.

So, after first stating that I am a journeyman author myself but a veteran reader, let me say this clearly:

There are no rules.

Every English teacher, every grammarian, and a great many authors just had their heads explode.  So let me explain.

Certainly, there are “rules” when it comes to things like grammar and usage in any language.  Knowing those rules is a solid foundation for any writer.  A foundation that I absolutely support.  Learn the rules.

Then toss them over the side as needed.

You will see me say this over and over and over on this blog – the only things that matter is the story.  If, in the pursuit of your story, you need to use non=standard English, do it.  If, in the pursuit of your story, your chapters are five words long or five thousand words long, do it.  Ignore the classic plot diagram of introduction, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution if they get in the way of your story.

Great stories have been told that ignored the rules.  Great stories have been told that adhered to every rule.

It’s not about the rules.  It’s always about the story.

Looking for “the rules” is a belief that there’s a magic formula for writing.  Once you know the proper “spell” you will become a great/popular/best-selling author.  It just isn’t so.  If it were that easy, there would be a lot more best-selling authors out there.  Sadly, there are people who claim to sell exactly that.  Without even looking at their product or ideas, I say stay away.  There is no easy checklist of rules for success.

Learn your craft.  Learn how great writers have done it for centuries.  Watch as some of the greatest simply do their own thing.  Watch them tell their story.

Then do likewise.



Writing – A Walk Through Memory

(I attended a “Writers Salon” put on by the wonderful folks at James River Writers late last year.  An interesting evening.  JRW is a great local writer’s organization.  The exercise was to do some “free writing” in a short period of time.  Don’t worry about editing or spelling, just write.  The prompt is those first two words.)

I remember…

The simple joy of walking. Today it always seems like walking has to be for a reason, to a destination. But there was a time when walking was just for the joy of seeing what was on the next block, over the next hill or around the next corner. My head was up, my eyes and ears were open and I experienced the world in a way I don’t seem to have the time to do anymore. The air was filled with wonderful aromas and I filed my lungs with it. I remember the joy of seeing things I had looked at a hundred times before but actually seeing them for the very first time. I remember that the world seemed a startlingly wonderful place. Rainy days, sunny days or days when the wind blew hard, it was all thrilling and wonderful and new. I remember when a walk was an adventure. Today when I walk I think to look for those wonderful sights and intoxicating smells that I remember.

(I did this on my phone originally.  Went to a writing event with no writing materials! What was I thinking?  That was an interesting experience.  I’ve determined that I don’t like writing on my phone.  I have cleaned it up to post here.

Sound like fun?  Try it yourself.  Five minutes.  No editing in that time period.  Share in the comments if you’d like.  You can clean it up for posting!)