Category: writing

Coming Up with a Character: Behind the Scenes on The Perfect Place to Die

We’re coming up on a month to go until THE PERFECT PLACE TO DIE comes out. Yesterday I got my author copies, and the book looks fantastic. The cover really pops, and the illustrations I commissioned turned out really nicely, as well. (They’re floor plans of the infamous Murder Castle.) Seeing the starred review from Booklist on there definitely gives me warm fuzzies. It’s in paperback, not hardcover, so it’ll be gentle on your wallet, as well. Now I need to figure out what to do with 25 copies of the book. I imagine I’ll hold onto them to give them away when I get to that halcyon day when I can actually visit classrooms again . . .

If you want to get a sense of the book beyond the synopsis, Daily Dead just posted an excerpt from the middle of the book. It’s exclusive to their site, so I encourage you to head over there to check it out.

In the meantime, I also wanted to give you something over here focused on the book today. I thought I might talk a bit about the main character. This was the first time I’ve gone back to a female protagonist in a good long while. It was also only the second time I’d ventured into historical fiction. Trying to get into the head of a 17 year-old girl in 1893 was an interesting experience, to say the least, and sticking with a first person point of view made that even more complicated. But I really wanted the first person for a couple of reasons: I feel like it’s a POV I excel in, and I wanted the immediacy you get with first person, especially since she’d be going up against a historical villain who many readers would already recognize.

(Reading over some early reviews, that aspect of the book hasn’t clicked with some readers. I get it: how do you write a suspense book when the audience all knows who the killer is, but the main character doesn’t? In the end, I decided to approach it like James Cameron’s Titanic. Yes, everyone knows the ship is going down. But we don’t know who might survive. Knowing the ship sinks is no reason to hold it against the people for getting on board. They don’t know that. Likewise, Etta (the main character in my book) only knows her sister has disappeared. Plus, she’s living in an era long before the grisly stories of murders and killers would become common place.)

Setting out, I had the premise of the book and that was about it. A teenage girl goes undercover at Murder Castle in Chicago to find out the fate of her missing sister. It’s a great premise, and it had a lot of promise, but there’s a whole ton to dig into before you can make an actual novel out of it. How much of the history was I going to follow? Who was the girl? Was she on to what was happening at the hotel, or didn’t she know. (As I said, I went with “she didn’t know,” because if she knows, then you have to ask how she knows. That implies proof of some sort, or at least her witnessing something first hand. If she’s got something that strong, then it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to have her just go to the police. End of story. Who wants to read that?)

One of the works that really helped me figure out how to approach this was actually Charles Portis’ True Grit. I first encountered the work in the John Wayne adaptation, which was fine, but I loved the Coen adaptation that came out in 2010 enough for me to want to read the source material. I adored the book, and I was blown away by the main character: 14 year-old Mattie Ross. The setting was 1878, but it was close enough to the time period I’d be in to give me some inspiration.

One of my favorite parts is the horse trading scene, hands down:

When I first watched the movie, I was convinced the Coen Bros. must have done the dialogue for the scene, but when I read the book, I realized it was practically all Portis. (I should have remembered the same scene from the Wayne adaptation in 1969, but on the other hand, it isn’t nearly as memorable.)

See what I mean?

With that in mind, it helped bring the rest of my book into focus. I actually began to think of it in terms of a western. Not that I’d be having shoot outs and horse trading, but this was set in the tail end of the Wild West. Just in Chicago, not rolling prairies. I wanted a strong protagonist, because any 17 year-old girl who was going to try and make her way through Chicago in 1893 was going to have to have a really strong backbone and plenty of persistence. But I didn’t want her to be too experienced, because I wanted this to be a challenge for her. I didn’t want her to be an ace detective, or to have extensive knowledge of the ins and outs of the city. I thought it would be better to have her be much more out of place.

At the same time, I was trying to come up with her name. I’m not a huge fan of naming things. It feels like such a commitment. And in this case, I had to have a name that was right for the period. What names were popular back then? When I was writing, I was also doing some family history work on the side, and it suddenly hit me: I could just check out what some of my ancestors from back then were named. In the end I settled on my great-great grandmother, Zurretta Eliza Palmer. (And I used her real life sister’s name (Ruby) as the name of the sister in the books as well.)

As soon as that connection was made, I made another. I could have my main character come from Utah. I was familiar with what life was like there at that time period (generally), and it would certainly make for a good fish-out-of-water background for the main character and her sister. (In the course of writing the actual book, I began to feel progressively guiltier for everything I was putting my great-great grandmother’s namesake through. (Imagine if Stephen King decided to name Wendy Torrance in The Shining after a family member. Yikes.) Nothing about the character was based on her other than the name. Hopefully she understands.

In any case, once I had those pieces in place, the book began to move forward. Knowing where a character starts and where they are later on in the book does a lot to give you a sense of trajectory. I might write about that later, but that’s all the time I have for now. The book comes out August 3rd!


Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Final Revision Push

I’m up to my eyeballs right now trying to get the latest draft of my next book (DON’T GO TO SLEEP) finished and off to my editor. It’s at times like these that I’m really reminded of just how much more work I end up doing on writing. When I’ve got an already busy schedule filled with things like “being a library director,” “being an active church member,” “being a present father and husband,” and “being a home owner,” tossing in a writing deadline is enough to make everything else feel like the wheels are about to fall off.

So what do I do when it’s crunch time like this?

One thing I’ve learned is that it’s best for me to avoid letting it get to here if at all possible. Writing when I’m under pressure is about as much fun as doing anything when you’re forced to. My escape mechanisms set in, and I start looking for excuses to do anything other than write. That, of course, doesn’t help me get any closer to actually getting the work done, and so I end up working much later in the day than I might have otherwise.

Take yesterday, for example. By the time I really found time to write, I was already home from work. No writing done before work. No writing done at lunch. And so all of it was waiting for me. I ended up writing three hours after an already long day. In a typical day, I write for around 45 minutes. The only good thing about this stage of the revision is that I know the plot and the characters and the setting very well, and I’m to the point where I know what I need to write. I just need to actually write it. So there’s no need for me to stare off into space and wonder what the characters might think or say, and I don’t have to worry about solving the actual plot problems. This is draft 3.5, meaning that I’ve already done three drafts of the book, and I’m doing a partial revision this time.

In this case, my writing group (rightly) pointed out that the climax I thought was so awesome . . . wasn’t. But through talking out what I wanted to get done, what was working, and what wasn’t, I came up with something that should fit the bill. But you can’t just rewrite a couple of chapters of the climax and make it work. You have to go back and tweak stuff that came before to make sure the climax is set up the right way. Find plot lines and details and alter them accordingly. Yesterday I was focused on adding a new scene from scratch and then significantly revising two other scenes. I got to that point and felt like I’d done a ton, but then I forced myself to push forward and add yet another new scene. I want this revision done and off to my editor next week. That’s already later than I wanted it to be.

It’s a good thing I already have a fair bit of experience writing books. If it had felt like this when I was starting out, I don’t know if I ever would have gotten through my first one.


Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Denouements: My Nemesis

I love writing books. Don’t get me wrong: it can often be a frustrating process, and it’s definitely time consuming, but I love writing books more than I love reading books, and that should say something right there.

There are many things about the book writing process that I enjoy. Plotting the thing out in the first place is a lot of fun, and I have a great time figuring out plot snares that come up. I love being able to go back in time in the book and write my way out of a jam. Climaxes are always a pleasure. Beginnings are fantastic. Middles can get a little bit down now and then, but I can usually come up with something to spice things up enough to keep me pushing forward.

The one part of a book that I consistently do not enjoy writing at all is denouements. (For you non-literature folks out there, that’s the stuff that happens after the climax.) The action is all over. There are no more conflicts to really settle. And I’m stuck with a few thousand words left to churn through before I can get to the part I really want to be able to say: The End. You would think this would be the easy part. Maybe it is for some authors. But for me, the driving force behind writing the book is figuring out what’s going to come next. I have a hard time caring about what happens after that.

My typical approach is just to write something and then listen to me alpha and beta readers after they’ve read through the book. I fully expect them to say, “I had a real hard time with the ending.” That’s when I ask, “What were you really expecting? What was missing?” At that point, they tell me what they were looking for, and I revise to fit those expectations.

Some of the problem stems from there just being too many threads for me to keep track of sometimes when it comes to the plot. I get lost in all the different balls I have to keep up in the air. I know I need to not drop any of them, and I get so focused on that I begin to lose sight of which ones are more important than the others. So at the end, I forget which to highlight and make sure I wrap up properly.

The good news is that I’m complaining about this right now because I’m about to finish the first draft of my 19th book, still tentatively titled THE AXEMAN. It looks like it’s going to clock in around 78,000 words, which is 3,000 longer than I was shooting for. Not bad, though I realize there’s a lot of fluff in there that’ll need to come out, and my writing group has already identified plenty more that needs to come in.

Though then again, I really enjoy the revision process too. (I’ve always felt like I’m a better reviser than I am a first drafter, so once I can get the first draft out in front of me and look at the whole thing, I feel like I can do a lot to it to make it much better. That’s a good feeling.) But before I can get to that revision, I have to finish the denouement.

Tell me: does anyone out there really love denouements? Has anyone read a book and said, “I loved this whole thing, but the denouement was so terrible it made me hate the book.” Since I know I’m just going to revise it anyway, maybe I should just make my standard denouements for all first drafts, “And then everything you figured was going to happen happened. The end.” Think I can get away with it?


Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

THE PERFECT PLACE TO DIE is a Junior Library Guild Pick

I got some good news last week when I heard the Junior Library Guild selected THE PERFECT PLACE TO DIE as one of their gold standard selections. Of course, I can already hear the question coming (What’s the Junior Library Guild?”), so allow me to explain.

Think of the Junior Library Guild as a sort of book club for librarians. Each year, they read through a slew of books sent to them by publishers. Something along the lines of more than 5,000 each year. Of those, their team selects the books they feel are the best in a variety of categories: around 650 a year. Their organization then pre-orders a bunch of the books they select, and offer them to members of the JLG as part of a variety of discount packages.

So what does this mean for my book? Well, for one thing, it’s the first book I’ve had that’s been selected, so that’s a nice perk no matter what. (Though in their defense, my previous books were through smaller presses, which can sometimes struggle to get noticed.) It also means that I’ve sold copies of THE PERFECT PLACE TO DIE before it’s even out, so that’s a nice thing too.

But beyond that, it’s just warm fuzzies to know complete strangers read my book and liked it enough to add it to a “best of” list. Any list, really. And JLG is owned by the same folks who do The Horn Book, Library Journal, and School Library Journal. They like to brag that 95% of award winners were first selected as Junior Library Guild picks, which is a pretty good track record. These days, it’s one thing to publish a book. Pretty much anyone can do that at this point. The bigger challenge is getting people to read the book you published. They have to hear about it and then decide it sounds like something they’d like to read. With so many other books out there, that can be a real uphill struggle.

How do you get people to hear about a book? Word of mouth is a huge driver, but that can only pick up speed if someone has actually read the book first. You can’t say “Have you read” if you haven’t read it in the first place, you know? Goodreads and Amazon reviews help with that. Book bloggers help. Librarians help a lot, acting as a delivery mechanism to getting good books out to readers. So having a recommendation that goes out to librarians across the country is definitely a good thing.

And these days, I’ll take definite good things wherever I can get them.


Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

A Very COVID Christmas

I mentioned earlier this month that I usually do an annual newsletter that I called off this year. Part of that tradition is that I write a Christmas-themed short story and include it as the centerpiece of the newsletter. Well, while I might not have felt up to reflecting back on what happened in 2020, I did have an idea for a short story that I wanted to compose in honor of the year. And the good news for you is that, since I don’t have a newsletter to share it in, I’m just going to share it with you all, instead.

The core concept behind it is simple: all this pandemic stuff has affected our lives pretty drastically. What has it done to the North Pole over the course of the year? And with that kernel of an idea, this is what I came up with.

(And as a parting note, I’m on vacation for the next two weeks, and so I’m going to step away from the blog for the most part as well. It’s easier to feel like I’m really on vacation when I cut certain normal activities out of my life, and the blog is definitely one of those. If something comes up that I just can’t keep my mouth shut about, I’ll pop on to post, but if not, then I wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy holidays. Catch you in 2021. I hear the sequel to 2020 is much better . . . )


A Very COVID Christmas


Buddy was twenty minutes late when he finally rushed into the conference room. “Wipe that look off your muzzle, Dasher. Just because you call a meeting in January doesn’t mean I don’t have a thousand things more pressing than meeting with a quadruped.”

I scowled at him even more. “Please. One of us just finished pulling a billion-ton sled through the sky for more than two hundred thousand miles in one night. The other supervises some woodworkers. The fact that I called this meeting instead of taking another long nap should be all the notice you need that it’s important.”

He plopped his cocoa on the table, sat down, and cranked the hydraulics on his chair to whiz him up to my height. Having a reindeer and an elf meet in the same room wasn’t the easiest thing to maneuver, and not just because of the logistics. Reindeer and elves hadn’t gotten along since the Great Snowball Incident of 1894. All reindeer knew elves were fussy little busy bodies, and all elves were convinced reindeer were nothing more than thick-necked grunts. But why should we care what pointy-eared little helium huffers had to say about us? Buddy stayed silent, sipping his cocoa and thumbing through his phone as if I wasn’t even there. He was two feet tall, overweight, and always full of himself. A weak attempt at a beard, and half-moon glasses that made him look a century or two older than he really was.

I took a deep breath, held it, and then exhaled slowly. The less I had to do with elves, the better. “I think we can both agree there’s too much bad blood between our kind over the centuries to hope to have any real cooperation here.”

Buddy barked out a laugh, but still didn’t look up.

“You’ve been following the news?” I asked.

“What do you think I’m doing now?” he said. “Swiping right on Tinsel?”

“If you’d put that phone down for five minutes, we could be done with this meeting, and I could go back to my bed, and you can go back to . . . whatever the elf it is you all do in January.”

“See?” Buddy snapped, jabbing at me with his finger. “It’s exactly that kind of attitude that makes me want to—We’re making things, Dasher. All day. Every day. We don’t have time for dashing and dancing and prancing and that thing with her eyelashes Vixen does all day. You don’t hear anybody singing about elf games at Christmas, do you?”

“Please,” I said, unable to keep the derision out of my voice. “You’re making toys, Buddy. Toys. And most of them these days come preassembled from Asia. If you want to pretend you haven’t outsourced three quarters of your workload, then fine. But don’t think for a moment I haven’t been keeping an eye on your monthly reports.”

“Reindeer shouldn’t even have access to our monthly reports.”

“It’s the law, Buddy. You want to change it, take it up with the unions.”

He started to say something, then swallowed it. “What’s the use of arguing with a reindeer? Now what is it about the news that’s so important?”

“I’m worried about this thing in China. The virus thing.”

Buddy leaned back from the table and lolled his head around. “Suzy Snowflake! You mean this is just about that? It’s a regional outbreak of some coughing. We’ve had way worse over the years. If Ebola didn’t slow us down, I don’t think we need to spend more than three seconds worrying about one more flu strain.”

“But in 1918 when the—”

“1918! Can you hear yourself? The humans might be full of themselves, and they might be pretty dense, but even you and I can agree that their health care has improved quite a bit in 100 years. Paying for it might still be tricky for those Americans, I’ll grant you, but—”

“So you haven’t heard of anything that causes you any alarm?” I cut in. I had no time to debate politics with a candy cane addict.

“No, Dasher. I haven’t. Stop looking for excuses to get out of next year’s deliveries. Even if something ‘bad’ were to really happen, I’m 100% positive it would all blow over by next Christmas. Frosty in a frying pan, but you reindeer can be a pain to deal with sometimes.”

“Fine,” I said, then left the room. The less I had to interact with Buddy, the better. And he was right. I’d only called the meeting out of caution. Worrying in January about something like this was taking it way too seriously. If I’d been operating on something like a real rest, I wouldn’t have even blinked at the news. I needed at least two more weeks of sleep before I was really ready to face the world again.

That flu thing would all be done by the time I woke up.


Buddy was waiting for me when I came to the conference room. The little elf had his elbows perched on the table, his eyes drilling holes into me as I took my time getting situated. I was just back from a two-hundred-mile jog with Comet, and I was in too good of a mood to let an elf bring me down.

“So you finally decided to make a meeting,” he said as I poured myself some oats.

“It’s the middle of March, Buddy, not October. Let’s keep the drama down to a bare minimum, shall we? Plenty of time between now and the Big Night for whatever has you elves all a twinkle.”

“Hey. This was your big concern before it was mine, okay? So I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to brush this off as if—”

“What the elf? This is about that Cornea thing?” I asked, spraying some oats across the table as I spoke. Maybe I should have swallowed more first.

Buddy pressed his lips together and flicked the few flakes that had gotten close to him back at me. “Corona, not cornea, and things have gotten a fair bit worse since we last talked about it.”

“There’s like thousands of miles between us and the rest of humanity, Buzzy-bud. Are you worried the big bad disease is going to come in on a shipping container or something? We’re going to be fine.”

“That’s the problem with you reindeer. You’ve got no head for numbers. If this thing goes exponential, then all it’ll take is one little—”

“It’s March. Christmas is nine months away, as you yourself pointed out back in January. Sure, I might have been a bit worried at first, but that was just because it was so new. I took what you said to heart, and I’m good now. This will all be long gone by the time we really have to worry about it, and I’ve got more important things to worry about for now. Like my vacation to Canada to see relatives.”

Buddy about exploded off his seat. “Canada!? Relatives?! You can’t just go to Canada in the middle of a pandemic. What if you get sick while you’re away? What if you bring it back?”

“I’ll quarantine or whatever. But that’s not going to happen. No need to chit bricks about it. Or are you saying my family is diseased? That’s what it always comes down to with you elves, isn’t it? Just because we’ve got fur all over our body, we’re somehow magically dirtier than the rest of you. Well we happen to like our fur. It keeps us warm, and we’re never naked, as opposed to some creatures I can think of . . .”

“It isn’t safe, Dasher.”

“It’s a cold, Buddy. I think I can handle a few sniffles, even if I catch it. Which I won’t, because my family isn’t diseased.”

“You can’t go.”

“Watch me.”


“It wasn’t me,” I said to Buddy on the phone.

“I’m sure it wasn’t,” his tinny voice answered back. “But it doesn’t really matter at this point, does it?”

“It matters to me,” I said. “I never got COVID, and I certainly didn’t bring it back to the North Pole.”

“You could have though. You went to Canada.”

“I heard Link to a trip to some temple in Nepal. You don’t see me pointing any antlers at him.”

“And it doesn’t matter,” Buddy repeated. “The disease doesn’t care who brought it. It doesn’t think anything about anything. We just need to make sure it doesn’t spread. No more in-person meetings. We’ll do everything remotely.”

“Right,” I said. “That doesn’t sound too hard. And it’ll just take a few weeks, right? We can handle that.”

“Right. Though we’d better lock down the stores as well. Limit how many of us can be in there at the same time. That kind of thing.”

“Easy peasy,” I said. “We’ll be done with this in no time.”

“Let’s hope so. We elves can’t afford to get behind on our quotas.”

“And we reindeer need our regular exercise.”

“So let’s follow these rules to the letter,” Buddy said. “We don’t want this to get out of hand.”

“Definitely not,” I said, then hung up.


I cleared my throat. “Thanks everyone for coming to the—”


The entire Zoom room was shocked into silence for a full second.

“Uh, Blitzen?” I said. “We can hear you.”

A few members of the elf council chortled. They always loved seeing a reindeer make a false step.

“I KNOW,” Blitzen kept going. His screen showed a close up of his name tag, though it was somewhat blurry. “AND THIS WHILE I WAS TOTALLY OUT OF TOILET PAPER. I FINALLY FOUND SOME OF THE STUFFED BEARS THEY KEEP DOWN IN—”

“Blitzen!” I shouted.

He kept talking, going into detail about things no stuffed bear should have ever had to experience. Several of the elves in manufacturing looked visibly green, and one of them turned off her camera.

“He can’t hear you,” Buddy said. “You’re going to have to mute him.”

“Mute him?”

“You’re the one who insisted on being the host.”

I squinted at the screen, trying to navigate the tiny menus and wishing I hadn’t made such a stink about being the host in the first place. It had been a two-hour debate. The elves were always insisting they were better equipped for running new technology, but the union had been pressing me to stay strong and start pushing back against losing ground to the pointy ears. This pandemic is going to put the whole world into a tailspin, Donner had said. That’s going to mess up the supply chain, and we might fall behind quotas. We’ve been struggling with the belief index for decades. Imagine what’ll happen if hundreds of thousands of children wake up to a weak Christmas morning. It might push us over the edge. The Big Man will have to start looking for corners to cut, and the elves have been pushing for an electric sleigh for the past decade. We need to show we’re providing more value than just one night of sleigh pulling.

Easy to say when you weren’t the one hosting the Zoom meeting where one of your own was talking about just what condition he’d left the toilet in for the last week.

At last I found the mute option just as Blitzen was going into bowel movements that I never wanted to hear about, let alone experience. The room went blessedly silent, even though Blitzen’s camera kept showing him talking. Who was he even calling at this hour? Probably his uncle, Schwitzen.

“Now,” I said, clearing my throat again. “The next few months are likely to be challenging, but we’re confident we can make it through with some minor adjustments to our workflow. We’ll be meeting remotely on this platform once a week with department heads, just like we’re meeting now. Remember, we’re not sure just what this disease is capable of, but—”

“I heard it doesn’t even affect elves.” That was Legolas from security. Typical elf manners.

“Our scientists are still looking into that,” I said, proud I was able to keep my voice so level. “For now, it would be best if we all just stayed remote. Wash your hands, and don’t forget to sanitize everything anyone else might have touched.”

“What about masks?” someone asked. I wasn’t sure if it was an elf or a reindeer. How were you supposed to know when everyone was so small?

“Masks?” Buddy asked, incredulous. “This is the North Pole, not Asia. Masks don’t do a snowball-throwing thing against this. It’ll just keep all the Corona right around your face, and then you’ll touch it and get it anyway. Leave the masks to the doctors, and just wash your hands.”

“Buddy and I will be checking in with each other,” I said, not wanting the elf to take control. Perceptions mattered still, even in a pandemic. “So if you’ve got questions in between meetings, run them by us, and we’ll iron it out.”

“That’s right,” Buddy piped up. “We’ve got to come together and make sure we get through this. Our biggest concern is keeping the supply chains moving forward and positioning ourselves so that once this is past us in a few months, we can go back to normal as quickly as possible. We’ll just be shut down for a few weeks.”

“Hang in there, everybody,” I said.


I stared at the wall of my stall. To think, there had been a time when I looked forward to lowkey days in the office. Days when I didn’t have to worry about any business trips or long range runs. I would personally wash a snow yak with my tongue right this instant if it let me go on a business trip. Even a business trip to the Southern North Pole would have been better than this.

Day after day after day of the same thing. The same place for breakfast. The same place for dinner. The same 43 knots on one stall wall, 38.5 on the second, 13 on the third, and 72 on the fourth. The same wondering why there were so many more on the fourth than the third. The same debate about whether I should just have facilities come in and paint the walls so I stopped counting the knots. The same worry that I might miss the knots after they were painted over.

I didn’t eat out. I didn’t go to the gym. The cutting-edge treadmill had seemed so cool when I first got to try it out, but now using it just reminded me of all the places I couldn’t be running. Couldn’t be exploring.

The days blended together. I spent my hours poring over webpages, trying to make sense of the science behind this disease. I went back and forth debating whether it would be better to just get it and be done with it or do my best to avoid it. Both options seemed terrible, though there were more than enough people online arguing each side.

And that was the other thing: the arguments. Over and over and over around the same thing. Even the scientists seemed unable to make up their minds. Masks good or masks bad? Drugs good or drugs bad? Airborne or droplets?

I needed a hug. A good run through the forest with the rest of the team around me. The last time I saw Vixen in a Zoom meeting, I could have sworn she’d put on a hundred pounds, even if she said it was just the camera angle. I hadn’t gotten on a scale in weeks. I probably had done the same thing.

Stress eating my way through the alpacalypse.

Wondering if there would ever be an end to it. When the debates start focusing onto “Number of Acceptable Deaths,” you know you’re living in one of the worst timelines.

But the not knowing . . . that was maybe the hardest thing about all of it.

Would we ever be able to go back to normal? And what did “normal” even look like?

It had been so long, I was worried I had forgotten.


“You have to put that swab where?” I asked, the statement not quite lining up.

The elf sighed and put her hands on her waist. She was dressed in a full body suit with candy cane striping and a little slit for her to see out of. Every time she moved, it sounded like squeaky sneakers. “It goes in your nose. Don’t be such a baby.”

“If it’s just going in my nose, then why is it a meter long?”

“We have to go deep enough to get a good sample size.”

“Of what? My brain?”

She practically growled at me, and I flinched back. Elves could be vicious when they didn’t get their way. All I needed was to have to get rabies shots on top of COVID tests. “You’re the thirtieth reindeer I’ve had to test. None of the rest of them took this long to get it done.”

“I’m just saying, with a swab that long, you need to be using a whole different preposition. It’s not going to go in my nose. It’s going to go up it. Waaaay up.”

“Just close your eyes and think happy thoughts, and it’ll all be over before you know it.”

“That’s supposed to calm me down?” I asked. “That’s what the vet told my great aunt before she was put down when she went all Rankin and Bass on us. Where’s Buddy? I want to talk to him.”

“Buddy’s dealing with union issues, and that’s all I’m going to say about it. Now get that nose down here before I call for the tranq gun.”


I got to the conference room fifteen minutes early, taking my time to make sure everything in it was wiped down with disinfectant. The table. The chairs. The door knobs. If we were going to have a hope of getting back to normal, then we had to be sure every single surface was spotless.

The floor was lined with candy cane stickers marking off 6 foot increments. Sugar glass panels had been erected all over the place to keep everyone in their little compartment. Everything we could do to keep everyone safe.

Buddy came in right on time, though he hesitated when he opened the door. “Are we sure this is safe?” he asked.

I stared at him for a moment. It was so strange to see anyone in person again, even for a little. He was still the same elf. Not even two feet tall, pointy hat and pointy ears, and the same green and white and red striped suit he always wore. The mask was new, though. He had one decorated with a mistletoe pattern.

Mine had a series of crossed antlers printed on it. It was also big enough that Buddy could have used it for a blanket if he needed to.

“It’s as safe as we can make it,” I said. My mask had a tendency to ride down when I opened and closed my mouth, and it was a struggle to keep it in place. Not for the first time, I envied Buddy his opposable thumbs.

After some hesitation back and forth, we were both sitting at the conference table. It felt like I was breaking the law. Like I was going to get put on the Naughty List any moment.

“This is silly,” Buddy said. “How can we expect the rest of the North Pole to get back on track if the two of us can’t even sit here and have a simple meeting together?”

“You’re right,” I said. “I know you’re right. Still, it’s strange.”

He grimaced. “These masks are going to be the bane of elven existence.”

“They seem to be staying on your face okay.”

“Sure they are, but over half of us need glasses to see what we’re working on. It takes all of four seconds for your glasses to start fogging up when you’re wearing a mask. What are we going to do about that?”

I grunted. That was certainly something I hadn’t thought of. Magical reindeer didn’t get bad vision. “Do you think we’ll need to wear them when we’re out for a run?”

“Write the question down,” Buddy said. “There’s a Return to North Pole Safety Committee that’s tackling all of those. A bunch of scientists advising them what they can and can’t do.”

“I should have invested in Red Tape Company before all this kicked off.”

Buddy laughed at the joke, which showed just how desperate we were for anything even resembling humor.

“Let’s get down to business,” I said. “We’re through with the worst of this pandemic, and good riddance.”

“No kidding,” Buddy said.


“No,” I said as soon as Buddy walked in the room. His mask was dangling from one ear, not even making the effort to cover his mouth at least, let alone his nose.

He rolled his eyes and looped the mask back over his other ear. “Jingly Jehoshaphat! Happy now?”

“Happy? No, I’m not happy. What happened to the Buddy I knew who was so worried about me heading off to Canada?”

“He caught wise to the fact that this virus was overblown to begin with. All those statistics are just a lie they’re using to control us. And what happened to the Dasher who was fine going on that trip, anyway?”

“He spent two months in the same room and got his head on right,” I said. “If we’re going to have half a hope of staying open and avoiding another shut down, then you elves are going to have to wear your masks. All. The. Time.”

“What do you mean ‘You elves’?” Buddy asked, his face clouding over in anger. “Do you know I almost got trampled by a reindeer on my way to this meeting? You all stomp around like you own the entire North Pole. Well we’re sick of it, and next month, we’re going to let you know just how we feel once we’re in the election booth.”

“The elections? You’ve been watching too much news from down south. These are union elections, Buddy. They’re aren’t going to change a thing.”

“Well—well—well—that’s what you think! You reindeer are just using this COVID thing as a way to grab more power for yourselves. Masks? Please. Scientists have gone back and forth on masking so much over this ‘pandemic’, I’m half tempted to start wrapping them and giving them to kids who asked for yo-yo’s.”

“They’re trying their best,” I said, “the same as any other sane being. But when you anti-maskers go around ignoring the advice, it just means this disease gets a bigger foothold. It makes it harder for everyone. So why don’t you stop just thinking about yourself and start thinking about everyone else for once?”

“Why did you even call this coal-blasted meeting?” Buddy asked, literally getting on top of the table and marching over to look me straight in the eyes.

I backed up a few feet. Had to keep the social distancing. “It’s October, Buddy. Or did you forget? We’ve got the entire North Pole complex resting on us keeping things going, and we have to—”

“Isn’t it amazing that whenever there’s work to be done, suddenly it’s ‘us’ and ‘we,’ but whenever decisions are going to be made, it’s all about ‘I’ and ‘you.’”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He folded his arms and lifted his chin. “It means the preparations for Christmas can wait until we elves have a bigger seat at the planning table. Until the elections are over and you reindeer are put back in your place. And until that happens, I’m not wasting my breath talking to you for one more minute.”

True to his word, he stormed out and didn’t look back.


“How are you holding up?” Buddy asked. He’d changed the last month. The fight was out of him, and his suit hung on him like a he was a turtle in a shell two sizes too big.

I gave him a half shrug, all I was really able to muster at this point.

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s about where I am too. You remember the Keebler family down in baked goods? One of the youngest went to a Thanksgiving party with a few of her friends and brought it back. Now five hundred twelve of them are down with a fever and more. The numbers just don’t look great, and Dobby in accounting said we don’t have enough vaccines ordered to cover even our first responders. But even with all that, I still have half the union complaining about the other half, either thinking they’re not wearing their masks enough or whining about having to wear the masks at all.”

“Tell me about it,” I said. “The reindeer games were canceled for this year and next, and half the herd is protesting it, saying this whole thing is just made up.”

We sat in silence for a full minute, neither one of us really having the desire to do anything other than exist.

“So why’d you call this meeting?” I asked.

“Oh,” Buddy said. “Right. It’s about the Big Man.”

“What about him?”

“What do you mean, what about him?” Buddy snapped, a little of the old edge back in his voice. “He’s a two hundred and fifty-year-old senior citizen who started watching 24-hour news stations from around the world to keep up to date during the pandemic. He liked the BBC for a while, but it was too gloomy, so he settled on Fox News, instead. I’ll give you two guesses what I’m worried about.”

My jaw dropped, though Buddy wouldn’t be able to see that behind my mask. “He’s not a—a—”

“COVID denier? You bet your twinkle toes he is. Here the entire North Pole has been bending over backwards the whole year to make sure he and the Mrs. keep safe from all of this, and now he’s insisting on going out for the Big Night. Says he wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

I scrambled to wrap my head around it. “But we developed all those backup plans. The elves and the reindeer were going to go in shifts, and . . . He doesn’t care, does he?”

Buddy shook his head slowly.

“And so he’s going to go out anyway.”

Now Buddy nodded, his elf face grim. “We’ve got as much chance of stopping him as the Keebler family has of getting better by tomorrow.”

I shoved back from the table, kicking over a potted candy cane plant and ramming my antlers into the wall three times in quick succession. I roared in frustration. “I’m so sick of this year. Every time I think it’s gotten as bad as it can get, something else comes along and proves me wrong. It’s torn my family apart, it’s ruined my job, it’s taken over my life, and now it’s even threatening the Big Man. If he goes out there, there’s no way he’s not going to get it. All that time in everyone’s actual house?”

Buddy got up and came to stand next to me, putting his hand on my forelock, though he couldn’t even reach past the first joint. He didn’t say anything. Just patted me a little and waited.

And somehow, that was enough. Maybe it was the physical contact after being apart from everyone for so long. Maybe it was the way the pandemic had worn me down. But for the first time, I looked at Buddy not as an elf, but as a person. Someone who was like me. Facing the same figgy pudding and dealing with it as best as I could. Buddy wasn’t my enemy. Why would I want to find another enemy when I had so many to deal with already, from COVID 19 to phony stories posted on Glitter and more? My breathing slowed and I got myself more under control. I stepped back to the conference table. “Sorry about the damage to the wall.”

Buddy got back in his chair and came back up to table level. “It was getting old anyway. We’ll have it patched back up and better than ever by tomorrow. You know us. We’re elves.”

“Thanks, Buddy.”

“No,” he said. “I need to thank you too. This year has been hard on all of us, and I guess there’s some things I’ve said and done that I’m not too proud of. I know I shared some things online that weren’t very nice, and I don’t think I’ve been doing much to solve the problems.”

The two of us stood in silence for a while, both of us lost in our thoughts. But when the meeting resumed, somehow it was different this time than any of the thousands of meetings I’d had with Buddy over the years. Not just in a pandemicky sort of way, either. The two of us were talking and actually coming up with ideas for solutions. The Big Man couldn’t deliver presents if he wasn’t conscious, for example, and between the two of us, we could arrange for his eggnog to be a little “special” this year. Once he was passed out in his sled, the reindeer could take care of the driving, and the elves could handle the delivering.

We weren’t enough to get the job done on our own, but together, we’d be able to manage it all. Was the meeting perfect from start to finish? Did we never argue once? No, but the best sort of meetings aren’t about agreeing on everything. They’re about spreading your thoughts out for the group to pick them over, so that the end result is stronger than what you could have come up with on your own. It wasn’t about one side winning or one side losing. It was realizing we were all on the same side, and we’d win or lose together.

Did Buddy and I become lifelong friends after that meeting? No. A simple pat on my leg wasn’t enough to change centuries of bickering. But we were able to see each other in a different light. Able to recognize that we’d always been on the same team, and we always would be. And when we disagreed and traded barbs just for the sake of seeing the other embarrassed or lessened, it hurt the whole process.

In the end, we survived that Christmas. I’m not going to say we flourished, because nothing that came out of 2020 could be said to do that, other than COVID19. But the presents got delivered, and Christmas morning came with most of the happiness and squeals of delight it usually did.

Of course, it also came with a very grumpy Santa Claus who had to be reassured he delivered all the presents the night before without remembering any of it. Did we feel good about gaslighting Santa? Not entirely, but at least he was still around to be gaslit.

And while the whole process hadn’t been perfect, looking back I could definitely see a difference in what life was like before COVID and what it was like after. We had all been changed by that year. Some of it was from all the time we spent alone. Some of it was due to all the changes we’d had to make at the North Pole and elsewhere. The pandemic didn’t finish as soon as Christmas was over, of course. It took much more time than that. But once we’d made the shift in mindset from us vs. them to just plain us, it became so much easier to deal with.

The elves might have still been shifty eyed little tricksters, but they were my shifty eyed little tricksters, and that made all the difference.


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