Discover more from Wednesday Afternoon
A tiny little band-aid
Fixing a story problem.
Surprise! It’s the special, limited-edition, never-before-seen Thursday Afternoon edition!
(Don’t worry, it’s not really a new thing. We’ve been doing this newsletter for a while now, and only missed two weeks because life got in the way. Which is pretty good, you know, considering how cantankerous life can be.)
(Note to self: do better anyway.)
Also, if you're a carpenter, woodworker, or someone who enjoys fiddling around in a wood shop with the intent of making something marvelous, I'd like to apologize. While 90% of other readers probably didn't notice a glaring issue in the last update of The Lost Circus, you likely did.
I missed it because I've never operated a nail gun.
My husband (whom I absolutely adore) is a woodworker. He creates beautiful things, like tables and bookshelves and jewelry-holders, out of wood. He knows his stuff. Table saws, sawzalls, Japanese pull saws, multi-tools (those are very small, annoying-sounding saws) - he knows them all. So when I had a character who needed to die in a tool shop, I asked him for a list of Very Dangerous Items, figuring he'd know the best ones to recommend.
He did, and though several of them would be particularly memorable, I liked the nail gun. It looks scary, but operation is fairly simple. I'd never used it myself, but I did watch him install baseboard with it, which basically made me an expert (even though I later found out that he used a brad nailer for that, which is not quite as deadly). So I wrote my story and released it into the world, believing that I'd done my research and everything was peachy-keen.
Shortly after the post went live, my man corrected this brief moment of hubris.
"I liked it," he said. "There's just one problem."
Turns out, nail guns don't operate by themselves. They hook up to an air compressor, which accumulates the pressure needed to stab a nail into a block of wood. That's what makes the pssht sound when you pull the gun's trigger. It's loud and turns itself on every twenty-five minutes to rebuild the pressure back up to a useful level, otherwise you get nail-sized dents and nothing holding your project together.
So, according to logic and reality, nobody can murder themselves with just a nail gun. My ill-fated character could dramatically attempt to take her own life, but she'd just pull the trigger, something may or may not click, and she'd still be sitting there today.
That's not what we want. In order for the story to go on, she needs to exit stage left.
According to my beloved man, there are a few options to fix it:
Use a battery pack. This would be the easiest solution: plug in battery, pull trigger, and poof! No more problem. However, this requires that my character - who is familiar with the shop, but doesn't use the tools herself - would know exactly which battery to use, how to install it, and to check whether or not it's charged. Not exactly the details I'd like to focus on.
Hook it up to an air compressor. Get the pssht sound, fill the air with a grinding noise as it pressurizes. There are other settings on the regulator, but since nobody's used the shop lately, odds are it would still be calibrated for the nail gun. Just turn it on, let it do its thing, and pull the trigger.
To be honest, I chose the nail gun because I thought it would be easy. That, and every single horror movie has a scene where somebody gets hacked to pieces with a saw. I wanted to go for something different. Shooting a nail into an artery isn't as gruesome as splashing the audience with buckets of blood, but it's still disturbing. I liked the idea that she wandered in, starlight glinting through the windows, and while daydreaming about ending it all, she takes the nail gun off the wall, and-
Well, you read it. You know what happened.
Anyway, I decided to go with the air compressor. From a story perspective, it makes more sense. The woodshop is older. The original woodworker already passed away. The tools wait under layers of dust for someone who isn't coming home. Nobody's going to go out and check to make sure the batteries are charged and ready for use. Nobody cares any more. It would be much more likely that an older tool, like an air compressor, would be readily available than a battery-powered nail gun.
Wonderful, my nail gun problem is fixed! Now I have a new issue: correcting the story.
Again, my husband had the solution. He pointed out that when our loved ones pass away, we often discover that the things that annoyed us are the things we miss. In the story, my dying character's husband and father-in-law used the shop. They've long since passed away, but in life, they probably annoyed her, too. What if they always forgot to turn off the compressor? What if, in the middle of the night, it would turn on and repressurize itself, making a horrendous din and waking her up every twenty-five minutes? She'd survive it the first few times, telling herself there was no reason to brush off her warm blankets, but by the fourth time she'd lose it. She'd stalk downstairs, muttering curses to herself as she turned it off, turning the whining noise into silence with a single flick of her wrist as she promised to let them have it in the morning, even though she never did.
It's a hollow memory, with both woodworkers gone. It's lonely to think about what we used to hate and can't have any more. And when we're wallowing in the pit of despair with no way out, that sadness can become untamable.
In other words, it's perfect. Adding the air compressor not only made the story more believable, but it also created depth at a critical moment. She has a few seconds left to live, and this is what she remembers: a moment of anger, of frustration, of pain. And how she'd do anything to get it back.
I think we can all identify with something similar.
Fortunately, the beauty of writing is that stories live in flux. Until they're officially published, anything and everything can be changed. That's what makes it difficult, but also incredibly satisfying when you get it right. I didn't this time, but now I know. Nail guns need air compressors. Not a mistake I'll make again.
It doesn't feel right to correct that post now, after it's live, but here's how I plan to fix it in the finished novella:
"In the midst of the exhaustion that follows, fueled by alcohol and sleeping pills, she will dream of her husband and your grandfather working together. They often toiled in the woodshed, irresponsibly leaving their tools laying around when finished. Abandoned machinery would run throughout the night, awakening your mother and forcing her to silence it. Though fueled by anger at the time, the memory fills her with regret. She would give anything - even enduring annoyances like this - to see them again. When she awakens, she will find herself in your grandfather's shed, the sunrise glinting in the saws' teeth."
"The next night, she will take the same pills, and drink the same drink. Again, she will find herself in the shed, staring at your grandfather's collection. This time, she will consider the sharpness of the blades, the swiftness of their cut. She will run her fingers down the saw, and think about chopping them off. Letting herself bleed out slowly, alone and screaming, surrounded by objects of destruction. It will seem a fitting end, after losing her father, her husband, and now you."
No, Mom. Don't. Don't-
"On the third night, your mother will sleepwalk to the shed. She will carry a bottle of wine with her for company, and when it is gone, she will smash it on the floor and step on the pieces. They will dig into her feet, wrecking her skin and dogging her every move with pain. Somehow, she will believe this is penance. If she were a better mother, you would not be dead. If she loved you more, you would not be dead. If she was a better person, she would not have lost any loved ones. You would all still be there, like she always dreamed. But instead, it will be her turn to join you."
My heart is in a vice. I can't breathe. She's making this up. She has to be. For shock value, for fear, I don't know why and I don't care. This is not how my mom should go. Not how anybody should go, but definitely not her. Not after all these years. She deserves better. Anything but this.
"So in her drunken, drug-addled state, she will survey the room, but find nothing to her liking. Then she will see the nail gun, hanging on its hook beside the door. She will go over to it and lift it, stroking it like a cat, feeling the weight and the cold metal beneath her fingertips. She remembers this one. She hears the familiar sound of the air compressor, a tool your grandfather never remembered to switch off, and how it awoke her when he still lived. Perhaps she will believe it called her. After all, it is the only tool she knows exactly how to use. And she will decide that this will do."
No, Mom. Please, God. Don't.
"She will find a chair sitting before the work table, well within reach of the nail gun's cable. Beside it sits the air compressor, ever at the ready. It has been years since anyone used it, but it still sits as it was during your father's last project. She will settle herself in the chair, flicking the switch beside her. As the air compressor fills, she will decide where to shoot herself. At first, she will consider her jaw, but that may only wire it shut and not kill her. Then, her temple, but the nail gun is heavier than she'd like, and will be difficult to balance against her skull."
Mom, don't no, please don't go, I love-
"Finally, the noise will stop. The silence of night will fall as she settles the nail over her femoral artery in her leg. The weight of it will feel comfortable there, and she will know she can control it. With her thumb, she will stroke the metal side, whispering blessings upon it. That it will shoot straight. That it will be over soon. That she will find her loved ones in the end. When she pulls the trigger-"
And you already know the rest.
What do you think? Does it still flow?
In case you run into a similar quandary for your own stories, here's an unsolicited word of advice: if you have a friend, or a coworker, or somebody who can answer questions about something, talk to them. Are they woodworkers? Bakers? Doctors, lawyers, pet owners, daycare providers, chicken people? (That's people who own chickens, not people who are chickens. Although if they are chickens, I can think of several questions I'd like to ask about eggs.) Either way, talk to them! If you have a story and a question, ask. People almost always love to talk about their interests. Funnel their passion into your words. Readers can tell if you know what you're talking about, and in this case, I failed. Do better for yours.
Pro tip! You don't need to know everything about something to be an expert. You just need to know one thing that nobody else does.
In this case, it was two: a nail gun and an air compressor.
Do better, dear readers. Find an expert, or if all else fails, become one. Your stories will thank you.
See you next Wednesday!
(For real this time!)
(Photo by Steve Johnson, Pexels)