I come from a long line of story tellers. Joining them was a matter of survival.

My dad told jokes for as far back as I can remember. My brothers and sisters followed in his footsteps, and these days family dinners often finish with a marathon of jokes. As soon as one punch line is delivered someone will say, “And that reminds me of the one…”

Way back when, my older sister and I (the girls), along with the next two younger brothers (the boys), were expected to do the dishes. We hated it. Maybe the intense dislike came from the fact that my parents picked this time to retire to the living room where they watched TV along with my youngest sister and brother (the babies). We’d dilly a bit, then turn to dallying. I think we could make the ten minute task last more than an hour. To help pass the time my sister and I would take turns telling stories. Often it was a fairy tale, which may have been significantly altered if we really didn’t know the actual story.

Leave it to Beaver dinnerAll six of the siblings viewed dinner time as an opportunity to grab everyone’s attention for a few minutes. We’d stand in the spot light telling the tales of our days. We generally concurred the stories were better if they were funny, and the competition was fierce and hilarity reigned, a lot like the TV show, “Leave it to Beaver.” I suggested we could have a TV show called “Dinner with the Schooleys”.

We’d get our material from any source, and we weren’t too proud to copy. Sometimes when my babysitting jobs lasted later into the night The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson would come on. I’d memorize the stand-up routines of comedians. If the family particularly liked one bit of shtick they’d request a rerun. The one I remember being asked to perform again and gain was a Richard Pryor versionPryor and Carsonn of a fairy tale. It was complete with sound effects and actions like galloping, and cupping one’s ear for close listening, all of which I faithfully replicated. The best line was, “Hark! I hear someone coming. Perhaps I’ll hide behind a rock or a tree.” Following a little later, line was, “Here I am, hiding behind a rock or a tree.” My mother would collapse in laughter. Some years later she told me it was because he didn’t know if he was behind the rock or if it was a tree. All that time I didn’t get the get the punch line.

HOW THE PUZZLE BOX CAME INTO BEING

A few years ago a friend told me for his entire life all he ever wanted was “to be of use.” The youngest of five children, his older sisters and brother constantly said he was too young, too small, too weak or not smart enough to handle just about anything he was interested in doing. He spent years thinking up ways to show them he was smart enough, and big enough.

Being a bigger sister, my friend’s perspective fascinated me. I thought about how a kid might prove them wrong, and what lessons he might learn in the process. I thought it would be cool if some mysterious member of the family gave him something to help accomplish the job. Maybe that person would just show up on the kid’s birthday with this really incredible gift. Maybe it would have some great stuff inside.

I figured it also needed to have some intrigue – it couldn’t be just a shoebox full of stuff. I remembered a puzzle ring someone gave me many years ago, and that gave me the idea of a puzzle box.

It seemed likely the kid wouldn’t know how to use his gift and get everything right the first time, but if he was someplace besides home he could practice a few times before he proved his siblings wrong. It seemed like he ought to be close enough to home that he could walk there. Then I got the idea that if he ran away from the older, teasing and taunting siblings he could take all the time he needed to practice and develop his skills.

I loved C.S. Lewis’s books that included fantasy with the common everyday aspects. I thought if my character went through a portal he’d be out his siblings’ sight. I decided to write the story with some magical creatures; I didn’t know what or who they would be when I started. The only character I knew from the start turned out to be a minor character, Sirod.

For me, it seemed it would be easier to write a believable story if the setting was in the past. I chose the 1940s.

Next, I needed to imagine a place where my kid would live. Once I lived near York in southern Pennsylvania. We rented a small house on what our landlord called an estate. Their large stone home edged the Mason-Dixon Line; built on land that had been deeded to the family by William Penn. It was surrounded by carefully tended gardens and a spacious lawn that swept down the hill to a pond. On the north side of the pond was a spring house. A large weeping willow tree anchored the side opposite the house. In my imagination, this is where I thought my character should live.

When I first started writing the story I called my hero by a different name. One of my early readers had the same name and it soon became apparent that it would be easier if my kid found a new name. This is how he became Michael, my buddy and my pal.

I never plotted out what was going to happen, I simply started telling the tale. Sometimes I’d take a break from writing. After a few days, in the dark shadowy hours before sleep, or just before dawn, Michael would whisper to me about a new adventure. I’d turn it around in my mind, solving a few technical difficulties. Like yeast causing the bread to rise, those thoughts would grow until I felt I needed to put it down on paper, so I could print it out, and share it with my writing group.

Other times I’d find I’d written myself into a corner and it looked like Michael was a goner. I’d walk away from writing and let it simmer on the back burner of my mind. Soon enough I’d wake up some morning and I’d know what smidgeon of magic would give us enough boost to save the day.

It’s been a joy to share time with Michael and his old pal Laddie. So much fun, in fact, that before I finished The Gift of the Puzzle Box, I knew there would be another Michael story. Shortly after, I attended the first Wisconsin Writers Association’s Bookcamp, and I decided to give Michael the chance to tell us about one year of his life.

I plan to write four books, each taking place in one season, and always on the night of a full moon when Laddie’s magic would help transport Michael to Kroy, the opposite of his home in York. Miz Bates became a central figure in the series when she told Michael about a character her father described. He is called The Nightwinder.

These are tales about bringing order to times of confusion, and touched with evil. The Nightwinder calls out for a hero to set things to right. In these tales Michael does his best to respond, with a little help from his friends.

Excerpt from THE GIFT OF THE PUZZLE BOXfull moon

 

    Chapter Eight: “River of Sparks”

Michael lay in the darkness, watching the shadows of the willow branches form large swoop arcs across his shelter.  Loneliness fell around him like a cold winter. He saw the brightness of the full moon through the open end of his oilcloth tent. I could easily find my way back home, he considered. It’s not like I don’t have someplace to go. But somehow, knowing that he was alone in the night because he decided to run away made the loneliness seem even colder. He rolled over on his stomach to think through his options.

“Ouch, and be-goodness, Michael! You must be more thinking more before you be moving!”

Michael jumped up so fast his head bumped the top of the tent. He turned around, and saw his foot was just a hair’s breadth from squashing Laddie. Oh, yeah, Laddie, he remembered. Laddie! Wait, hold on a minute here. That wasn’t a dream? All that stuff really happened?

“That’s more like it, Michael. Up and at ‘em, now. The sparks are flying and we best be getting along with the tetchy-stretchy. Time’s a-wasting and the portal is open. Be getting the bits and pieces together and we’ll be stepping up in time.”

“Uh,” Michael said slowly. “The tetchy-stretchy? The portal? Stepping up?”

It was clear from the peeved look on Laddie’s face that he could no longer contain his frustration. “Michael, now stop this instant with the queries.” Hands on hips, he began reciting:

“You are coming to the willow in the night of the full moon.

“You are knowing there is work to be done.

“And you are wanting to be the useful boy.

“Now, do the right thing, give your Laddie a hand with getting the bounty ready for the Queen-Lady.” With a huge effort, Laddie began struggling with Miz Bates’ dishtowel. He pulled his sleeping corner toward the middle and motioned for Michael to grab the opposite corner.

Michael didn’t know what to think, but he didn’t want his only friend in the world to become more upset with him. Laddie was already striding purposefully toward the open end of the shelter. I’m just going to try to keep up with this guy. After all, he’s only four inches tall. Michael smiled to himself. It shouldn’t be that hard. He tied a knot on opposite ends of the dishtowel’s corners and slung it over his a shoulder. He grabbed the puzzle box by the strap and followed Laddie out the opening.

He stopped in his tracks.

Michael stared at the river. He couldn’t believe what he saw: the entire river surface was covered in sparks. Yellow, red and brilliant blue-white sparks stretched as far as he can see. Instead of hearing the sounds of ripples rushing against the river stones, sounds of snaps and sizzles filled his ears.

“Yes, it’s so,” said Laddie. “Now the sparks are flying; the portal is open. Be moving lively now, Michael. We’ll be stepping up for the tetchy-stretchy.” Laddie stood at the edge of the water, his hands clasped behind his back. His cowboy boots sent out small spider-like fireworks that seemed to mirror the red and yellow sparks of the river. “I am pleased to be serving as the tetchie for you, Michael. You’ll be needing to step up to the stretchie.” He motioned for Michael to join him at the river’s edge.

A strong sense of danger surrounded Michael, but he reluctantly moved forward. He wondered whether or not the sparks would burn him, or if Laddie’s firework-spouting boots would appeared to have a logical answer.

All of a sudden, Michael thought of Uncle Bob, wishing to the bottom of his heart that he could be as brave as his uncle. Just remembering his birthday and Uncle Bob gave him some confidence. I can do it! Uncle Bob said I’m big enough, and I’m going to prove him right.

Michael walked bravely to the river. I know I can do it, he thought again. He set the puzzle box down next to Laddie and said, “Let me give you a lift.” He picked Laddie up and carefully placed him in the bib pocket of his overalls. “There. That should give you a good view and keep you safe, too,” he said. “After all, we’re doing this adventure together.”

Laddie had a little grin of contentment on his face as Michael carefully leaned over to pick up the puzzle box. “Let the adventure begin,” Laddie called out. “Be stepping up here and now, Michael.”

Michael guessed it was time to put a foot in the sparking river. He wanted to hold his breath but, more than that, he wanted to be brave. He took in a big breath, and then blew it out hard.

“That be fine, Michael. That be doing it fine.” Michael thought it seemed almost as if Laddie was coaching him but, without giving it another thought, he stepped into the river.

Immediately he regretted not having taken in a big breath to hold before he went in the river. He couldn’t inhale. The sparking water consumed him and Laddie. It swirled above, below and all around. He couldn’t breathe but his eyes saw everything. The sparks seemed to tumble on top of each other, colliding at times to explode in more of those spider-like fireworks. He could hear everything, too. The fireworks sent out a barrage of noise that echoed in his eardrums. In between the crashing noises, he thought he heard Laddie, It seemed as if he was saying, “The stepping up be finished and he’s doing the stretchie just fine. The portal is open and our tetchie is strong.”

Michael looked back over his shoulder. He saw his arms extend out about three times their usual length. In his right hand the puzzle box drifted along. The brass corners winked with bright reflections of the colorful sparks and flashes. He looked down to see his feet walking along the river bottom, at the end of ten-feet-long legs. His entire body looked wiggly, like a current was running through it, too. It’s a good stretchie. Everything was languid, peaceful and calm.

Then the world turned black.

[The Gift of the Puzzlebox, in which Michael makes his first trip to the land of Kroy, is undergoing final revision and is in beta reading.]