I have been preparing for a couple of upcoming workshop-style betas for my writing courses, and so for today I’m going to share one exercise that isn’t going to make it into those presentations, Smashionary. This is a very simple writing exercise but it does require either a dictionary, vocabulary book, or one of many online random word generators. Here is how it works:
Pick out two random words, and smash them together. That is now the title of the short story you are writing. Like many of the exercises I recommend, I don’t suggest a lot of prewriting—just start writing the first thing to come into your head and keep going for at least ten minutes. If you wind up writing a whole, complete story that’s great, but if you wander off or get lost or wind up only with notes or di Since the words are highly variable, you might be able to really learn what a new or unfamiliar word is through this sort of application which also trains creative thinking.
Here are a few mash-ups if you are eager to get started right now:
Hospital + Spike: Hospike or Spikpital
Boots + Garden: Bogarden or Gardoots
Sign + Sylvan: Sylvign or Sigvan
Hobby + University: Hobbiversity or Univobby
As you can see, they tend to seem quite silly and some naturally glide together while others are more awkward. The title is meant to help stir your mind like a cauldron and get you thinking. Here is where my mind went with the above examples:
– Spikpital: A grim detective story about a small Yankee forest town that hasn’t advanced its medical practices in a century…
– Gardoots: Some sort of small, troublesome creature called a Gardoot. I think I would start writing about the trouble they cause, and then try figuring out what they actually are.
– Sylvign: This title smells like high fantasy and mysterious forests, and makes me think of Tolkein’s Middle-Earth or the hero Sigmund and his dragon.
– Hobbiversity: A social critique or pundit’s scrawl about some sort of universal hobby, some craze that has taken over and is everywhere for the protagonist to struggle against and then at the end another new craze starts up. Maybe something out of the ordinary, like a teacher or a garbage collector is the main character.
It’s an exercise, not a competition or a novel so don’t get too invested and just practice letting the words flow out. Trust me, even if you are at square one with story talent or expression you will develop a good, natural feel as well as a personal style just through practicing, and having a judgment-free time to just practice is awesome for strengthening the skill when you really need to summon it up.
This and many, many other exercises will be in the fully finished course Practice Writing Through Short Stories when it releases, when you can find out why writing short story is the best way to practice all different forms of writing: creative, personal, professional, and persuasive alike!
For today, I rolled up “prevention” (the act of preventing) and “revenant”, and here is
Martin’s ancient frown lines deepened as he looked down into the town square. “It’s been two days and they still are afraid to cut him down. That mob milling about truly is mad with grief.” He turned back and let the velvet curtain fall back, trading the harsh bleak winter light for the softer candelabras that lit his companion’s face as the thin young man shoveled forkfuls of chicken into his mouth.
“Mrf.” He dabbed his face and swallowed twice in quick succession and caught up his silver goblet. “Well father, the celebration of the heir’s birth was only four days ago. He was clearly a monster; probably hired by those meddlesome Ahesna. I’m just surprised his Majesty had him executed so quickly instead of finding out who sent him.”
“That is what concerns me most of all. The King is mad himself; he hasn’t slept since, just sitting and staring out a window or up and pacing as he dictates commands and letters.” The man’s ringed fingers absently found a pastry and he chewed reflectively. “What a misery. To celebrate the long-sought birth of a son—mother and infant both healthy as can be— and then an assassin steals in without subtlety and cuts your dreams to pieces. To think he climbed up the outside wall all that way up to the tower! It is outrageous. Inhuman.”
“They are sure that’s true, then? All the talk among the caravans were that it was an inside job, that some traitor let him inside.” The boy resumed his rapid, quiet repast.
“They are. His boots had a sort of spike on them, and the damage to the mortar is still visible.” Martin walked to his desk and picked up a book. “Here, though. For your birthday, so you can continue some of your studies while you are in the field.” The response was another muffled sound as the boy half-stood, magnetized by the food in the face of his attempts at courtesy. “God save you Thomas, do they not feed you?” Thomas looked ashamed, finally swallowing his mouthful. His father waved him to sit, allowing the book a place on the corner of the table.
“Ker-heh… When we heard the news, we rode straight through and changed horses. We stopped once at an inn yesterday morning where I talked a bit with the patrons, but that was the last I’ve had.”
“Mmm. Your horsemanship must have finally improved then! Your captain made a good choice to get back here. There’s been no more trouble, but still the situation is tenuous. That many peasants and all the emotions…”
“The queen was from just next door, raised in Epereims. How many of the rabble are from there?”
“Many. My fear is that someone will start a riot by attacking one of the foreigners, and more pain and blood will soak this woeful chapter in the King’s life.” The doctor checked the window again, pushing the curtain aside. “Still, hurry and eat. I expect to be summoned back soon.” The minutes passed in sober quietude, the small scrapes of cutlery punctuating the worried thoughts that brooded with the men. As the small feast was becoming fully picked-over, a knock brought the expected summons and the two gathered themselves and hurried to the guarded staircase leading up to the royal apartments.
The King slouched, bloodshot eyes vacantly scanning the still-bloody bed of his former Queen, a disheveled man brought low with sorrow. The doctor entered quietly and stood at a respectful distance. His son eyed the window suspiciously, clearly considering something as the regent sluggishly reacted. “Ah, Martin. And Thomas too! Lad, your father here is a dear friend and he will be pleased to hear that we acknowledge the wisdom of his insistence that I take my rest and some food. But there are yet two things to be done, then I can rest easy.” The lord swayed to his feet, some coals roaring to blaze again in his eyes. “Thomas, run down and tell your captain that he is to take his men to the square to assist Aster in finally cutting that body down. Disperse the mob and bury the body in secret somewhere lest we be tempted do un-Christian things to it. It is time for this day to end for– for us.”
As the lad shot away like a rabbit before a hound, the renewed eyes focused on Martin’s face. “Old friend, go with them. Find something about this man, so we may take our vengeance on whoever sent him. You know the great struggle we have had for an heir, and you yourself said that I may not live to see another; at least let us damn the one who have stolen our peace.”
“Could your gaolers not uncover anything?”
“Not a peep. They told me that fired irons and calipers and knives alike he simply ignored. They cut him and burned and questioned him but he was as unresponsive as when the guards took him from this room. You saw how he was.”
Martin ran his tongue over his teeth. “Like a brined fish, but breathing. I will do all I can think of, your Majesty.”
The march to the square was tense, and Martin uttered many a prayer even after they arrived and the surly, angry crowds slowly trickled out of the square, away from the ordonnance’s imposing weapons and the implied threat. All went peaceably, and the relieved and eager headsman looked to Martin for permission to cut the man down. The approval given, he examined the body right there on the platform, rolling out his tools and jars from his sack with his son’s practiced help. The Captain kept the privilege of gawking to himself, directing his soldiers to their task of keeping prying eyes discouraged and the true casket of the several they had brought concealed.
When night fell several hours later, the frigid autopsy had brought no answers. Martin had found nothing that would point conclusively in any direction—even the slivered shards within an old scar he had pored over and cleaned and set to jingling in a phial could only tell the quality of his assailant’s weapon, and these were so black from degradation that there was little hope left. The coins from the man’s purse, a mixed bag of copper from several nearby nations; his clothing, homespun; his body scarred like any sort of mercenary, though muscled like a true lion lithe and hard; a plain face that could be from anywhere. “The perfect assassin.” He finally stood. “Well, let us load the body to its eternal rest.”
The soldiers dispersed, weighted sacks keeping the knowledge of the true resting place from all but the Captain and the two surgeons though only the soldiers knew where in the countryside the grave would be dug. On their return, the cloud of disappointment returned to the King, though with rest and food he began again handling the affairs of state that lurked to cheapen his misery. The matter seemed concluded, until a week later a knock at Martin’s door as he was taking his evening revived the old corpse:
“Good evening, doctor.” The foreign nobleman was short and plump, immaculately dressed with dominant, dark eyebrows and pearly. “The servants suggested I visit at this hour, quietly, and escorted me here.”
Martin lowered his Etalan glasses and set his book down. “Very good of them, I’m sure, but to what do I owe the pleasure? You have the advantage of me, I’m afraid.”
“I am Doctor Brukowa. I served a lesser lord far to the East for my whole life until three months ago when he died tragically. I have come because there was a similar assassination here recently, on the path I have taken trailing my lord’s killer. May I come in?”
“Yes, yes of course…” The old man waved toward a chair. “Forgive me, I was not prepared to receive a guest.”
“Oh, I am grateful enough to overlook any of the typical niceties. I would prefer to be brief and to the point.” He withdrew a sizable scroll from his sleeve, tied with a purple ribbon. “This is a sketch of the man I seek.”
“It looks much like him.” The sketch was a masterpiece, and the pale fingers of his guest obscured a strange mark on the corner of the paper that made his skin crawl…
“Then my search is over. I have only to visit the grave and see that he is buried and I may return home!” The man rose, exultant as he rolled the scroll up again.
“That will be some difficulty. The King ordered him buried in secret, somewhere out in the countryside near the city.” Martin smiled ruefully, politely resisting an urge to take his goblet and throw back the rest of the wine.
“Ah.” The man sank down again. “That does make it more difficult. But you are sure the man was killed?”
“I investigated his corpse, at the King’s order, to see if I could find anything that would point to his employer.” The visitor’s eyebrows quirked, and Martin shook his head. “Fortune did not smile on me that day.”
“Nor me on this night…” The man chuckled and rose. “Well, I thank you for your help.”
Martin was left in silence after his visitor left. He was unable to return comfortably to his book and wine; was it his guest’s suddenness? No. He knew it, from a chance encounter in the far-off mists of his younger years. The symbol was one of sorcery, dark and forbidden yet somehow fitting for a dogged pursuit of a skilled assassin… He scratched his beard, reaching for his wine.
Outside the castle, a wisp of cloud slipped from a window on an upper floor and slithered along until it paused between the fortress and the town beneath a tree to form a pudgy man with a faint yellow glow and whiff of sulfur. He withdrew the scroll from his robe once again, placed his finger on the dark rune in the corner and spoke an oily word. The ink slid and coiled, reforming to a map of the surrounding area which he studied for a moment. He swore under his breath, and withdrew a short knife of black iron to place the broken-off tip onto the vellum. He looked expectant, then confused.
In Martin’s satchel, the phial with the metal shards made a tinkling noise.