An Invitation To Kill
“This is not rocket science, folks, but it's close,” Mr. Taylor said as he paced the front of the class, black marker in hand, ready to pounce on the white board as he had during the last forty-five minutes to jot down basics of writing. “Writing a novel isn't like writing that essay for English in fifth grade where you fill in a lot of bullshit description just to fill pages.”
Some of the students around me chuckled, as did I. There was a certain energy which Mr. Taylor threw off like a Yorkshire Terrier in a room full of people. I grew fond of him within the first five minutes of my seven o'clock class in my first ever-college course. Everything he said I agreed with and he said a number of new things that had me excited about starting that novel of mine.
He stepped up to the white board where he'd written out several headings with a number beside them. He'd been going through these for the first portion of the hour, pausing to make a point, questioning us for our ideas and input, and to add his own to each sub-heading.
His marker poised at “Describe Character's Physical Appearance”. He wrote blue eyes in an almost illegible downward scrawl.
“Now, I don't know about you, but if a writer goes into great detail about what a character looks like, what they're wearing, that they have a mole on their right cheek, green flecks in their otherwise brown eyes, I'm outa there,” he said. He turned to us. “Jane Austen's description of Elizabeth Bennett was that she had 'fine eyes'. It's up to the reader to figure out the meaning of that and use their own imagination. If your character has brown eyes, or blue eyes. Fine. Write that, but don't waste a whole frigging page on the color of their eyes. Unless you've got a vampire with all black eyes, of course, I'd like to know that.”
He turned back to his list on the board and tapped Protagonist & Characters. “No one is perfect. And if your protagonist is perfect, then, they're boring. Saints are nice, but, I'm sorry, their boring. Unless you behead them, of course, then you have a story.” Laughter. “A new writer makes a lot of glaring mistakes, and this, I can say, is one of my pet peeves. Give your protagonist a trait that might be considered a little wacky, or off. He, or she, can have a scar, or a tattoo that stands out, just to make them memorable. In any case, make them marred, on the inside, as well as outside. No one is perfect.” He gave everyone the eye. “And don't give your detective a drinking problem. That's old hack.” Chuckles all around the room. “Find some other maladjustment. Maybe he's OCD, you know, like Monk.” This was met with a few chuckles from the older students. The rest of us just stared. Leaning on his desk, he shook his head and sighed. “Once again, I'm dating myself.” He smiled at those who knew what character he'd meant. There were older students—over thirty—sprinkled throughout the twenty-five or so students. For the most part, all were sophomores, around eighteen or nineteen. I was the only freshman in the class. I'd gotten special privilege because of recommendations from my English teacher in high school. I'd been so excited about this class, and happy it was the very first class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Stopping at his desk Mr. Taylor grabbed a pile of papers. “Let's see a show of hands. Who's writing what genre. How many of you are writing suspense?” He held up his own hand. A few hands went up around the classroom. “How many are writing science fiction?” Again about four hands went up. One guy who reminded me of the character Hagrid, held up a hand as big as a catcher's mitt. Shaggy hair and beard obliterated his features, and he seemed to take up a large amount of Real Estate at the table behind me.
“Horror?” More people raised their hands. I counted six hands. “Okay, good.” He counted and then handed out the stapled sheets as he went from row to row in the room. “How many are writing romance?” There were a few timid hands. “Don't worry, if you aren't sure about it. If you like to read that sort of genre, raise your hands.” He looked down at the girl second from the front and smiled at her. “Writing romance has big rewards. It's got a huge audience, and usually a writer worth her salt can net six figures, especially if she gets a good agent and they can get her into one of the bigger publishing houses.” The girl's face turned bright crimson and she turned to her friend next to her. Both giggling with hands to their mouths.
While the hand-outs were passed back, I looked over mine. I loved hand-outs. He'd already handed two out before this. One was called How to Write your Novel, in which were xeroxed pages from writing magazines and was at least thirty pages in length. Another was called Goodbye Writer's Block. I decided I had a lot of reading to do later on, and happy about it. In fact I couldn't wait, I became slightly distracted by some of the subjects in the most recent handout. From the sound of pages being riffled through, others were just as itching to learn what was inside as me.
“You'll find that each genre has sub-genres. Take for instance mystery.” He looked around the room. “Anyone here writing a mystery?”
I raised my hand half-heartedly. I hadn't committed anything to paper. My summer had been too busy, what with graduating, my aunt getting married to Sheriff Weeks, and moving in with us. Oh. And the murder that occurred, in which I played some minor part in solving, working to unravel who had, and who had not murdered Arline Rochelle. Admittedly, I wanted to write about that, but worried about lawsuits. I was strongly advised not to.
Mr. Taylor stepped over to engage me. “What type of mystery are you writing? Or do you know?”
“I guess I hadn't thought about it,” I said, clueless.
“Do you have any favorite authors?”
“I've just switched over to murder mysteries, so I don't actually have anyone.”
“I'll give you a list, next time. But you'll see under Murder Mysteries in your handout—” he tapped the paper he'd just handed out in front of me “—you've got the Classic Whodunit, Cozy, Courtroom Drama, Espionage, Historical, etc.” He had stepped away from me with long legs and walked back to the front of the room and chose a blank area of the white board. “Let's take the cozy mystery. Normally, they take place in a small town, where all the suspects are present and familiar with one another, except the detective, who is usually an outsider, but not always.” He wrote out the general headings.
In my case, Weeks hadn't been as much an outsider as he wasn't quite yet a family member. But I reminded myself I would have to change the whole story, as well as names.
“And then there's the amateur detective. This is like the Jessica Fletcher character, or Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. Those are both interesting characters to read.” He turned and our eyes met. “The trick of writing a mystery is knowing who did it, how, why and then write backwards.” He smiled and amended, “Well, not literally backwards.” Chuckles again rose from our classroom. I smiled, enjoying the fact he wasn't dry as a November leaf like my past English teachers had been.
I thumbed through the hand-out. Finding my genre and the sub-genres, I pressed the pages open.
“At the end of this handout there are some questions I'd like you to answer in the space provided. I'll ask for these back. Just tear out that sheet and hand it in on Wednesday. And, I see that it's time to let you guys loose, so see you all next time.” As he said this, he shuffled papers and tapped the edges on the desk, and putting them into his briefcase, getting ready to leave himself. I couldn't believe the time was already up.
The whole class stood, and like someone had shot a starter's gun, everyone filed out and were all gone in 5.3 seconds. My movements jittery, I tried to gather my notebooks, pens and multiple hand-outs, and kept dropping things on the floor. I always had trouble getting out of the room in as quick fashion as my classmates.
Mr. Taylor held the door open, waiting for me with a smile while I pulled the backpack onto my shoulder and felt suddenly weighted down with fifty pounds.
“You might want to check out our library for some books in the mystery section,” he suggested.
“That might help,” I said. “I was writing romance before this, but I just couldn't get into it.”
“So, murder holds your interest. I can get behind that.” I placed Mr. Taylor at mid-thirties with not too short-cropped, coffee-colored hair, and stood about six-two. He towered over me and was about the same height as Weeks. I smiled and was too shy to look into his handsome face or into his eyes for more than a few brief seconds. I couldn't say what color his eyes were. My gaze fell on his left hand where a wedding band rounded his finger. I don't know why that disappointed me.
“My aunt owns a bookstore, too. I should just check out what she has as well,” I said.
“By all means! One of the things I stress in my class is read as much as you can.”
I nodded. “Well. I enjoyed your class. Have a good day,” I said in parting.
“Thank you! See you on Wednesday, Ms Quilholt.” Wow. He remembered my name. We had filled out 3x5 cards with our names and interests on them at the beginning of class. He'd filed it into his memory so quickly. Impressive.
I waved, and watched his tall, somewhat athletic body turn a corner. Face warm, I turned away, trying to curb my thrill over this first class under my belt in something I hoped I would excel in. What I would not excel in was my next subject. Math.
I looked over my syllabus, found the line for this subject, which would begin in less than ten minutes.
ROOM 335 - LEVEL 3 – EAST WING
I puzzled on this for a moment. For the life of me, I actually didn't know where I was. East Wing, or West Wing? Before seven o'clock this morning, I'd stepped into this gigantic, sprawling white cement and windowed building known as Whitney College for the very first time. I had found this class only by asking around. I had gotten here early in order to make sure I got to it on time because I didn't want to miss my first creative writing class. I couldn't miss my next class, however.
A rotund man in a dark suit and pink shirt and dark tie approached down the hall. Smiling, he said brightly, “Morning!” to the few people he passed. Balding with a fringe of dark hair over the ears and back of head, he had the air and look of a man who owned a Fortune 500 company. I put him in his fifties, his suit looked expensive. Shoes—wingtips—immaculate with a high shine on them I didn't doubt would show his reflection, that is if he could bend over to see himself.
“Excuse me,” I said, moving into his path.
“Yes, young lady?” His cologne assaulted me, but it was pleasant enough at maybe a football field away. I always wondered if people who smelled this strongly of cologne were covering up bad BO and maybe I should buy stock in the company that made it.
“I'm looking for the East Wing,” I said, holding out my map of the building. The print was really small, and I couldn't really discern one wing from another. The numbers printed on it would require a magnifying glass. This map was a joke.
The balding man looked down at my map briefly. “Ah. East Wing. It's east, of course.” He chuckled at his little joke. I sort of knew that, thanks. But I didn't know which way was east from where I stood. He pointed over my shoulder and said, “It should be down to the end there, and take a left. What class?”
“Third floor. You'll find the elevator or the stairs at the end.” He still pointed and I noted a large gold watch on his wrist as well as a diamond ring on his ring finger of the right hand.
I thanked him and headed in that direction. Of course, this was Level One, and looking around I found a sign on a wall which announced WEST WING. This should be easy, but it wasn't. The way the building was set up was like spider legs growing out from a central main section. Plus, the hallways were placed on the outer sides of the classrooms with a lot of glass. Looking out, their various sports fields filled my view on this end. Beyond that were corn fields, and the small town of Cedar Ridge in the distance. Interesting concept, and the view was spectacular, but I had to wonder what the cost would be to heat the thing during our ferocious Iowa winters.
Heading back toward the center of the building where a series of balconies and staircases descended or ascended, I paused. Below where I stood, I looked down on the commons, which was situated in a sort of large oblong pit. A number of students sat, or moved through taking breaks between classes, some of them studying or eating. Music from some speaker eddied up from this subbasement break room. Taking the stairs, I moved up two levels to find myself on Level 3. As I moved along the hallway, classes were filling up. Doors were being shut. I glanced at my watch, thinking it couldn't be that late. It was now five minutes before the hour. Five minutes and I hadn't even found the east wing yet.
Panic setting in, I rounded the end of the hallway, and found myself in the Arts Building. Wonderful. Where was the Arts Building on my map? Unfolding my map I studied it. Everything looked confusing on the map. I turned it around and around, trying to find the Arts Building. It was at the end of a wing and in its own square building called “Fine Arts Building”. Finally looking up and locating another one of those signs I hissed.
Great. If only I'd taken art next, I'd be fine. But that wasn't until this afternoon. I'd decided to take an art class as an elective.
Moving along, I came to a juncture and found the bathrooms. Convenient. But where was I? I referred to the map once again. At this rate I might make it to my next class by Christmas.
Screams burst from down the hallway ahead of me. I looked up to see three girls running toward me, screaming something inaudible because their voices overlapped. They flew down the hall in my direction like the Devil himself were chasing them, long hair flying behind them. I saw nothing at all in the hallway that would invoke such behavior.
Maybe they were late for class, like me.
Their loud screams made me cover my ears as they fast approached me.
“Clown! Evil Clown!”
What the hell? I didn't get a chance to ask them directions.