writing, Writing and Editing

Revision: Before and After

Recently I posted about having to re-work my current novel because I’d previously overlooked the rule, Chekhov’s Gun. Well, I’ve finished now and thought I’d share some of the results with you. Below, you will find the final scene of Chapter 4 as it stood before the revision, followed by the same scene post-revision.

Tell me what you think.

BEFORE

His dad’s house, the house where Jason and his brother had grown up, was a ’30s era Victorian farmhouse in a neighborhood of similar houses on the lower slopes of Beacon Hill at the west end of town. Back in the boom days the homes had been built by the prospering ship’s officers, cannery managers, and merchants who called Port Salish home. By the time Jason was born the boom in Port Salish was long over, the neighborhood was no longer upscale, and many of the houses were beginning to lose their battle with time and the elements. But they’d still been captivating, especially to a young boy with imagination.

Now, as Jason steered his car sedately down Salmon Berry Lane, he noticed that Port Salish’s reincarnation as a retirement and tourist community had been good to the neighborhood. Many of the stately old houses had been restored to their former glory and he counted two that appeared to be in the middle of major work. The shrill of power saws filled the air.

He didn’t see any sign of children around any of the houses he passed. They’d still be in school, of course, but their bikes, balls and other toys shouldn’t be.

Even the house on the south side of his dad’s had a dumpster parked in the drive.

Jason pulled into the drive that sloped up the left side of his father’s house, beside the dumpster
in the neighbor’s. None of the houses in this neighborhood had been built with garages. In the thirties, few people in rural Washington owned cars, so why build a garage? Later, when cars and trucks became more popular, some had converted old carriage houses at the back of the properties into garages. Others had built simpler carports as shelter from the rain.

He parked behind his dad’s Ford pickup, removed his briefcase and laptop from the car and climbed the half dozen steps to the front porch. Jason still half expected the front door to open and his dad emerge to greet him. To welcome him home. He didn’t, of course. No one did. No one was there.

Jason took a deep breath and tried the front door. It was locked. His dad never locked the house. When Jason pointed this out on one visit his dad had shrugged. “Port Salish is a small town,” he’d said. “On an island with limited ferry service. Where would they sell the stuff without getting caught? No burglar worth his salt is going to bother with us.”

Now it was locked.

Fortunately, Jason had a key. He unlocked the door and stepped into the living room. It was exactly as he remembered it. His father hadn’t changed the decor since the day his mother died. He’d never seen a need to.

Jason set his briefcase and laptop on a nearby armchair and just stood there for a moment taking in the atmosphere. The place simply oozed his father. There were hints of his mother, of course. Everything from the art on the walls to the patterns on the furniture were his mother’s choice, but her choice of over twenty years ago. It didn’t so much show a woman’s touch as the memory of one. It was now all his dad’s.

It looked like his dad had just stepped out for a beer or to grab something from the market. In the kitchen, breakfast dishes still soaked in the sink; the coffee maker held half a pot of cold coffee. He always took a thermos of coffee on the boat with him. It could get cold out on the Sound. A fishing magazine lay on the dining room table folded open like he’d intended to finish the article later.

Jason found his dad’s answering machine. To his surprise, there were no messages waiting. There should have been a few, he thought. Word, particularly word of a tragedy like this, traveled fast in a small town, but it wasn’t perfect. Somebody would have called, not knowing he was dead. Somebody would have called trying to reach Jason. A telemarketer would have called. Somebody would have called. But no one had.

What did that mean?

He left the kitchen, glanced in the downstairs bathroom, saw nothing of interest, then moved into the den at the back of the house. Or what used to be the den. His father had pretty much turned it into his office years ago. But it had always been “the den” when Jason had been growing up; he just couldn’t bring himself to call it anything else.

His dad had updated the television to a fifty inch flat screen, but the room was dominated now by a desk, a PC, printer/fax combo and a two drawer steel file cabinet. It was his office, study, and living room. And again, it looked like he’d just stepped out for a few minutes. An empty beer bottle and a partial can of peanuts sat next to the keyboard. So did the remote for the TV. The air was colored with the nutty memory of old cigar smoke.

Jason sat down at the desk and turned on the computer. While it booted up, he began looking through the desk drawers. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for. Something labeled in bright neon “Clue”? He didn’t know. At some point later on he’d need to sit down and go through all his dad’s files, business and personal, but right now he was just glancing around, orienting himself.

And looking for clues.

He found his father’s checkbook and scanned the register, but nothing looked out of the ordinary. Most everything else in the desk drawers were office supplies, copies of the fish and game regulations, and odd correspondence. Nothing of interest.

He turned his attention to the computer. Again, he found nothing that struck him as unusual. He saw all the usual programs, Microsoft Office, Outlook Express, Internet Explorer, Photoshop. Nothing attracted his attention. He briefly opened his dad’s accounting program, but found nothing interesting there, either by its presence or by its absence. He then tried Internet Explorer. It successfully opened to his dad’s homepage, Yahoo News, so he had internet access. He open the browser’s history record, but found it empty. Either his dad had set his browser to erase the history after each session, or someone had scrubbed it.

He sighed and leaned back in the chair. Something was wrong, he was sure of it. Deep in his gut he knew he was missing something significant, something right in front of him. He just didn’t know what it was. Try as he might, he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. It was like he’d blanked out the name of some familiar movie star.

The answer was to walk away. Quit thinking about it.

He’d no sooner stood up than his cell phone rang. He glanced at the display. It was a local number. The only person in town who knew his cell number was Sgt. Hayden.

He answered it.

“Mr. Reynolds?”

“Call me Jason,” he told her.

She paused. “The Medical Examiner is releasing your father’s remains today. They’ll be arriving on the afternoon ferry. I took the liberty of calling Schroeder and Sons, the local funeral home. They’ll pick up the body at the ferry.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem, but you’ll still need to call and set up a meeting to arrange the funeral and burial and everything.”

“Of course.”

“Got a pen and paper?”

He was a reporter. He always had a pen. He pulled a pad of notepaper closer to him on the desk top and told her he was ready. She gave him the name of Lindsey Schroeder and a local number and he scribbled it in an unused corner of the page, just below a scribbled note reading “strawberry fields.”

Odd. He didn’t think his dad had voluntarily listened to a Beatles song his entire life.

“Mr. Reynolds? Jason?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I’m here.”

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, fine,” he said. “Sorry, something distracted me.”

“Anything I should know about?”

He smiled. “Are you a Beatles fan?”

“Excuse me?”

Something else occurred to him. “I do have a question for you.”

“What’s that?”

“Did your Department bring my dad’s truck back to the house?”

She hesitated, just for a moment. “As far as I know, it’s exactly how we found it. Why?”

“I was just wondering how he got down to his boat. Someone give him a ride?”

“Maybe. Or he might have walked. It’s a small town. You’re, what, maybe six blocks from the marina?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “You’re probably right. Sometimes I forget how much safer it is here than in Seattle.”

But he was thinking that it had been raining then. Raining pretty hard.

“Speaking of your father’s boat, the Department will release it to you tomorrow morning. Do you know where the Sheriff’s dock is at the port?”

He told her he thought he could find it.

“A deputy will be there between 8:00 and 9:00. You’ll just need to bring some ID and sign a couple of release forms.”

He told her he would be there.

“That’s all I’ve got. Is there anything else you need?” Sgt. Hayden asked.

“No. No, I think that’s it. And thanks.”

“Happy to help,” she told him.

They disconnected.

True to his word, he immediately called the funeral home and set up an appointment with Mr. Schroeder for 3:00, two hours from now. The woman he’d talked to said Mr. Schroeder would explain all the options then. She’d had an extremely soothing telephone voice. Jason briefly wondered whether they’d trained for that soothing tone at mortuary school, or did it come naturally?

He closed his phone and headed upstairs to take a look at the bedrooms. The stairs were right outside the den at the back of the house, next to the back door. They ended at a small landing on the second floor. To get to the attic, you had to pull down a panel in the hallway ceiling to reveal a narrow set of wooden stairs. But he wasn’t going to the attic right now. At the head of the stairs was a short hallway floored with scuffed oak. To the left was his old bedroom, then the bathroom. To the right, on the south side of the house, was Jeremy’s old room, now the official guest room. Directly ahead, and occupying the entire front of the second floor was the master bedroom. His parents’ room. His dad’s room.

The hall was as dark and gloomy as if it were night. The only window was behind him above the stairs and the weak eastern light only penetrated so far. On a cloudy day like today, it didn’t even bother fighting the shadows. His mother had hated the gloom and insisted their bedroom doors remain at least partially open, to let some light in.

His dad hadn’t felt the same way. All the doors were closed.

Jason walked past the two smaller bedrooms and opened the door to his dad’s room.

It felt like violating a trust. Growing up, the only room in the house that was strictly off limits to him and his brother had been his parents’ bedroom. Technically, Jeremy’s room was off limits to him and vice-verse, but that rule was only honored when it was convenient.

He had never gone uninvited into his parents’ room. Ever.

First of all, the bedroom was as neat as a hotel room. The king-sized bed was made, the comforter precisely draped to just miss touching the hardwood floor on all sides. The night stands and dresser surfaces were all clutter-free and gleamed as if they’d just been polished. A throw rug sat on the floor to one side of the bed and a pair of slippers beside it. Even the pair of jeans and work shirt draped over the back of an armchair seemed to be part of the design. There were no dirty socks or underwear on the floor, no half-eaten snacks. A modest stand across from the chair held a small television, a few books.

Was his dad the type of man who made his bed every morning? Jason wasn’t sure. It could have been a habit left from when his mother was alive.

Besides, if his dad hadn’t made the bed, who had?

Did he have a housekeeper, or a neighborhood lady come in to do some cleaning? He didn’t know. It was possible. If so, she would be a great source of information.

He pulled his cell out of its pocket and opened the notepad app to write himself a reminder about the housekeeper. This was exactly how he worked a story, especially in the early stages. Find something, often something very small, that didn’t seem to make sense. Figure out a list of people who could explain it to him. Ask them the question. See if they have an explanation. If they did, did he believe it? Did their explanations lead to further questions?

The Stevenson story had started out with the oddity of one particular construction company winning such a large percentage of supposedly “open bid” contracts. It had seemed strange. So he had asked some questions. The rest, as they say, is history.

He saved his entry and shut the phone down.

Again, he had the annoying feeling that something important was lying there just beyond his grasp. It was taunting him.

His thoughts were interrupted by the musical ding-dong of the doorbell echoing through the empty house. Naturally, he was about as far from the front door as he could be and still be in the house. He left his father’s bedroom, hurried down the hall and took the stairs two at a time, just like when he was a kid. The bell chimed a second time just as he reached the ground floor.

“Coming!” he yelled out, though the odds were no one could hear him.

AFTER

His dad’s house, the house where Jason and his brother had grown up, was a ’30s era Victorian farmhouse in a neighborhood of similar houses on the lower slopes of Beacon Hill at the west end of town. Back in the boom days the homes had been built by the prospering ship’s officers, cannery managers, and merchants who called Port Salish home. By the time Jason was born the boom in Port Salish was long over, the neighborhood was no longer upscale, and many of the houses were beginning to lose their battle with time and the elements. But they’d still been captivating, especially to a young boy with imagination.

Now, as Jason steered his car sedately down Salmon Berry Lane, he noticed that Port Salish’s reincarnation as a retirement and tourist community had been good to the neighborhood. Many of the stately old houses had been restored to their former glory and he counted two that appeared to be in the middle of major work. The shrill of power saws filled the air.

He didn’t see any sign of children around any of the houses he passed. They’d still be in school, of course, but their bikes, balls and other toys shouldn’t be.

Even the house on the south side of his dad’s had a dumpster parked in the drive.

Jason pulled into the drive that sloped up the left side of his father’s house, beside the dumpster in the neighbor’s. None of the houses in this neighborhood had been built with garages. In the thirties, few people in rural Washington owned cars, so why build a garage? Later, when cars and trucks became more popular, some had converted old carriage houses at the back of the properties into garages. Others had built simpler carports as shelter from the rain.

Jason had never seen a vehicle in their carriage house garage. It had always been his dad’s workshop and storage for his fishing gear.

His dad’s pickup wasn’t in its usual spot in the drive. But it wouldn’t be, would it? It would either be still down at the Port, or in a police impound yard.

He parked beside the house, removed his briefcase and laptop from the car and climbed the half dozen steps to the front porch. Jason still half expected the front door to open and his dad emerge to greet him. To welcome him home. He didn’t, of course. No one did. No one was there.

Jason took a deep breath and tried the front door. To his surprise, it was locked. His dad never locked the house. On one visit, when Jason pointed this out, his dad had shrugged. “Port Salish is a small town,” he’d said. “On an island with limited ferry service. No burglar worth his salt is going to bother with us.”

But today it was locked.

Fortunately, Jason had a key. He unlocked the door and stepped into the living room. It was exactly as he remembered it. His father hadn’t changed the decor since the day his mother died. He’d never seen a need to.

Jason set his briefcase and laptop on a nearby armchair and just stood there for a moment taking in the atmosphere. The place simply oozed his father. There were hints of his mother, of course. Everything from the art on the walls to the patterns on the furniture were his mother’s choice, but her choice of over twenty years ago. It didn’t so much show a woman’s touch as the memory of one. It was now all his dad’s.

It was also like a cave. All the window blinds were drawn.

He took a couple of minutes and opened the blinds, letting the living room fill with light.

It looked like his dad had just stepped out for a beer or to grab something from the market. In the kitchen, dishes still soaked in the sink; the coffee maker held half a pot of cold coffee. A fishing magazine lay on the dining room table folded open like he’d intended to finish the article later.

Jason found his dad’s answering machine. To his surprise, there were no messages waiting. There should have been a few, he thought. Word traveled fast in a small town, but it wasn’t perfect. Somebody would have called, not knowing he was dead. Somebody would have called trying to reach Jason. A telemarketer would have called. Somebody would have called.

But no one had.

He left the kitchen, glanced in the downstairs bathroom, saw nothing of interest, then moved into the den at the back of the house. Or what used to be the den. His father had pretty much turned it into his office years ago. But it had always been “the den” when Jason had been growing up; he just couldn’t bring himself to call it anything else.

His dad had updated the television to a fifty inch flat screen, but the room was dominated now by a desk, a PC, printer/fax combo and a two drawer steel file cabinet. It was his office, study, and living room. And again, it looked like he’d just stepped out for a few minutes. An empty beer bottle and a partial can of peanuts sat next to the keyboard. So did the remote for the TV. The air was tinted with the memory of cigar smoke.

Jason sat down at the desk and turned on the computer. While it booted up, he began looking through the desk drawers. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for. Something labeled in bright neon “Clue”? He didn’t know. At some point later on he’d need to sit go through all his dad’s files, business and personal, but right now he was just glancing around, orienting himself.

And looking for clues.

He found his father’s checkbook and scanned the register, but nothing looked out of the ordinary. Most everything else in the desk drawers were office supplies, copies of the fish and game regulations, and odd correspondence. Nothing of interest.

He turned his attention to the computer. He saw all the usual programs, Microsoft Office, Outlook Express, Internet Explorer, Photoshop. Nothing attracted his attention. He briefly opened his dad’s accounting program, but found nothing interesting there, either by its presence or by its absence. He then tried Internet Explorer. It successfully opened to his dad’s homepage, Yahoo News, so he had internet access.

He sighed and leaned back in the chair. Something was wrong, he was sure of it. Deep in his gut he knew he was missing something significant, something right in front of him. He just couldn’t put his finger on what it was. It was like he’d blanked out the name of some familiar movie star.

The answer was to walk away. Quit thinking about it.

He’d no sooner stood up than his cell phone rang. He glanced at the display. It was a local number. The only person in town who knew his cell number was Sgt. Hayden.

He answered it.

“Mr. Reynolds?”

“Call me Jason,” he told her.

She paused. “The Medical Examiner is releasing your father’s remains today. They’ll be arriving on the afternoon ferry. I took the liberty of calling Schroeder and Sons, the local funeral home. They’ll pick up the body.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem, but you’ll still need to call them and set up a meeting to arrange the funeral and burial and everything.”

“Of course.”

“Got a pen and paper?”

He was a reporter. He always had a pen. He pulled a pad of notepaper closer to him on the desk top and told her he was ready. She gave him the name of Lindsey Schroeder and a local number and he scribbled it in an unused corner of the page, just below a scribbled note reading “strawberry fields.”

Odd. He didn’t think his dad had voluntarily listened to a Beatles song his entire life.

“Mr. Reynolds? Jason?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I’m here.”

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, fine,” he said. “Sorry, something distracted me.”

“Anything I should know about?”

He smiled. “Are you a Beatles fan?”

“Excuse me?”

“Never mind.”

“The Department will also release your father’s boat to you tomorrow morning. Do you know where the Sheriff’s dock is at the port?”

He told her he thought he could find it.

“A deputy will be there between 8:00 and 9:00. You’ll just need to bring some ID and sign a couple of release forms.”

He told her he would be there.

“That’s all I’ve got. Is there anything else you need?” Sgt. Hayden asked.

“No. No, I think that’s it. And thanks.”

“Happy to help,” she told him.

They disconnected.

True to his word, he immediately called the funeral home and set up an appointment with Mr. Schroeder for 3:00, two hours from now. The woman he’d talked to said Mr. Schroeder would explain all the options then. She’d had an extremely soothing telephone voice. Jason briefly wondered whether they’d trained for that soothing tone at mortuary school, or did it come naturally?

He closed his phone.

Again, he had the annoying feeling that something important was lying there just beyond his grasp. It was taunting him.

His thoughts were interrupted by the musical ding-dong of the doorbell echoing through the empty house.

“Coming!”

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