Wednesday, November 25, 2015

NaNoWriMo: What does it all mean?

I first visited Dinosaur Land in 2014 which I decided to go on an Instagram Vacation. My plan was to go from Arlington (where I live) to Baltimore (a city I love) to Richmond (to visit friends). Along the way my plan was to stop at roadside attractions and unusual points of interest like the American Visionary Arts Museum (a must see in Baltimore). I photographed the pineapple that greets visitors to Charm City and Nipper the RCA dog. I stopped at the Giant Roller Skate (but did not skate; need to go back to do that) in Bealton,VA. However, Dinosaur Land was always the true destination.

March in the DMV is a strange month. It's hard to predict the weather; it can be gorgeous and spring-like or hold onto winter with an impressive death grip. I once described it to a friend from New Orleans as "what would happen if February and April had a baby and that baby hated sunshine and happiness." As I was driving from Arlington to White Post, VA (where Dinosuar Land is), it started to sleet and snow. The route takes you down 66 through the Shenandoah Mountains so you can imagine how much fun this was. By the time I got to the parking lot, it stopped sleeting but was still bitter cold. Dinosaur Land was open; I was the only visitor. The young man who sold me my ticket told me to be careful but to enjoy. I stepped through the entrance into a strange and magical place. I walked around the park, taking pictures, reading the signs, and wondering why more places like this don't exist. It made me feel like a kid again and that was before I browsed in the gift shop.

No one is going to build Dinosaur Land today (unless it resembles something more like Jurassic Park) but I'm sure glad Joseph Geraci thought to do so in the early sixties. I've been back twice since 2014 and plan to go at least that many times next summer. Places like Dinosaur Land represent a lot of things: nostalgia for the good old days, a specific type of American entrepreneur, and the belief that simple entertainment is the best kind of entertainment. It's the ideal place for hipster kids to take selfie (and me too - I have some Dinosaur Land selfies too) but also a fun thing to do with little kids on a pleasant summer day. Places like Dinosaur Land make me think about my childhood and driving from wherever we lived to Detroit in the summers and the sort of hazy veil that sits on top of childhood memories. We never stopped at a place like Dinosaur Land but we had adventures and enjoyed the fun of the road.

As I started prepping for NaNoWriMo this year, I had a hard time getting into my original idea. I liked the idea but I when I sat down to write a character sketch or timeline, I got stuck. While I think it's a good idea, it's just not ready to see the light of day. Yet. So with two weeks until the start of the month, I threw out that idea and decided to go with something else. I decided to write about a Dinosaur Land-like place in a similar type of town in Virginia but tell the story from the perspective of a young girl, Iris, (and later her as an adult) whose family owns a roadside attraction called Land of Legends. She grows up there and its really the only place she knows. She wants to be an artist not run a park in the middle of nowhere. When she returns as an adult the realities of running such a business sink in; it's fallen on hard times and the land is worth more than the family legacy. Iris has to decide what to do with the park and how to preserve the history of her family.

Land of Legends features Iris's family, including her father, grandparents, aunt, and two cousins. There's a boy who returns later on but not as a love interest, a grumpy cat named Ethel, and the legends themselves. The park features a Yeti, Bigfoot, dragons, a kraken, mermaids, a maze with a Minotaur, fairies, and a family of unicorns. Imagine growing up with that in your backyard and with the expectation that you will run this one day. I genuinely liked every character I wrote even the bratty little girl who tries to climb on the unicorns. It was fun to write but as with any writing, it was also work. I struggled through 1997, the summer Iris turns 13. Getting through the middle was the most challenging part of the story. I also made the decision to kill a character although the character that died at the end was not the character I originally planned would die. That's how these things work; you have a plan but things happen and you change course. However, I kept going and I finished the first draft. I wrote a fun, little novel. It's not going to change the world but it changes me.

Which brings me to the end: what does it all mean? When I tell people about NaNoWriMo and about "winning" (which is what they call it when you get your 50K word goal and finish), they seem rather let down. I assume it's because they think winning means my novel will be published. That's not how this works. I get where they're coming from; when you write a novel people expect you to publish it. Maybe I will one day but that's not the goal for me. I have done this for the last three years to push myself to take an idea and turn it into something complete. I like the structure of the month; I have to discipline myself to write and commit to the project fully. Writing is not just a hobby for me but since it's not my full time job, taking this month to really dedicate time to an idea and to crafting characters and to seeing them develop makes me incredibly happy. It gives me purpose and fulfills my need to do something creative every day.

The other reality of this is that it doesn't stop because the month is over; not the novel or my writing. I write a weekly blog, I write for work, I write things I don't share publicly; I will always write even if no one reads. I'll take a little break from the novel but will return to it at some point to revise and edit and decide if I want to do anything else with it. I've been working on revising last year's novel, Transient Suburbia, on and off since the summer. My goal for the coming year is to finish the revisions to that novel and do something with it. I don't know what that something is but I want to see that novel out there in the world. I have two weeks off in December and most of my time is going to be devoted to working on that novel because I believe in it and I love it. Eventually I'll do the same thing with Land of Legends and my first NaNoWriMo novel, The Metro Counselor.

The 2015 Stats:
  • Started on: November 1
  • Finished on: November 23
  • Total days: 19 days (I wasn't able to write four days for various reasons)
  • Best day: November 22 - 8171 words
  • Worst day: November 18 - 184 words
  • Total words: 50078
  • Pages: 95
  • Chapters: 26
  • Number of times I watched the kraken scene from the 1981 film Clash of the Titan: 40
  • Number of pairs of themed socks purchased: 3 (Yeti, Bigfoots, Unicorns - all from Target)
  • Packages of peanut M&Ms: 2
  • Bottles of wine: 2
I'm happy to share my "finished" NaNoWriMo novels with anyone interested in reading them. I wanted to post the whole novel this year but it didn't really lend itself to being posted on a blog. 

Coming soon to the Island: the conclusion of NaNoWriMo, The Eye Shadow Experiment (no, I did not join a band but it is an excellent band name), a check in on how online dating is going, and my guide to not hating the holidays. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

NaNoWriMo: The Home Stretch

We all know that Pumpkin has a lot of feelings. She's never been shy about "telling" me exactly what she thinks of my life choices (the eyes really tell the story) or the food choices I make for her (we went through a spitting food phase a few years back - not pleasant). On the plus side, she's fairly low maintenance; she doesn't need me to pay attention to her all the time. I appreciate that about having a cat; she's the right mix of aloof and needs attention. It's why we've gotten along so famously for the last thirteen years.

Pumpkin hates my computer. She doesn't even like laying on it like all those cats on the Internet; she prefers the cable box and the heater for her napping needs. You can imagine then how much Pumpkin actually loves National Novel Writing Month. I can see the dislike in her little cat face every time I sit down to write in the evenings. I imagine what's going on in her head, "Oh no, that stupid clicky-tappy thing is back again. She's not going to pet me or give me treats for hours. And when will she go to sleep? I have cat things to do and I can only do them when she sleeps. Look, shiny thing! Hey is that a bug? Oops, nap time."

Or something. Maybe it's just all "food, nap, sun patch, litter box, pet me, food, water, treat, nap, nap, nap, knock something over, nap." I don't really know but I do know that Pumpkin gets cranky when I spend too much time on the clicky-tappy thing. She's shared this opinion multiple times with me this month as I work on completing my third NaNoWriMo novel. Her two favorite activities: guarding my notebook and being in the way (usually by standing over my keyboard). I could pretend like she's helping ("This book needs more cats!") or concerned for my well being ("You need breaks.") but that's really just me projecting. The fact is that this year's novel is much harder to write than the last two. There are ten days left and I want it to be over now.

November has been a surprisingly busy month. I was in Indianapolis for four days for a work event, I got sick immediately upon returning from that work event, launched a brand new week-long onboarding program for new hires (that's my job job) while sick, went to the winery with my family, and watched the Saints get trounced by the Redskins (this last one hurts the most). During the previous two years, I did virtually nothing during November but write and go to work. I like the discipline of coming home from work and spending four or five hours immersed in a world that doesn't involve people complaining to me about training, sitting in traffic, or creating yet another spreadsheet to track information no one really cares about. I like these evenings of creating and having fun and being annoyed by characters who seem to be taking over even if that was never the intention. It just seems like this is year is kicking my ass.

And it's not because I don't love this idea as much as the past two years although I will admit that last year's novel is my favorite. I like the idea of Land of Legends and enjoy the characters. I even found a way to weave in the children's book I've always wanted to write but haven't. I created a map of the park and a timeline so I could keep dates straight in my head. I did my character sketches as in year's past (although a lot of what I sketched is very different from how some of these characters ended up in the novel). I struggled with the first part of the novel set in 1997 (the year I graduated from high school). It went on for too long and I think this is where the novel took over and I lost control. I finally had to end 1997 and now I feel like I'm back on track and can get to the end.

I have 17,249 words left to hit the 50K mark. I think I have about 19K left to actually finish (it's hard to say since I have two ideas for the ending). I have nothing to do this weekend except write. In theory, I could finish tomorrow. That would mean writing around 8600 words each (to 50K) or 9500 words to really finish. The most I've written in a single day this year is 5767; the most I wrote in a single day last year was 6202. There's no need to rush but I've finished early every year and it would be cool to do that again. However, 9500 words in one day is a lot. I do enjoy ambitious goals so I'm probably going to go for it. That's the spirit of this month anyway - the world needs my novel.

What's happened since the last time I shared a chapter? Iris is all grown up now, living in DC and working as the education director for a museum that only exists in the world of the novel. She's writing a children's book in her spare time about a dinosaur toy named Walter who goes on adventures with his owner, Sam. Iris has been called back home to Land of Legends; her grandfather is dying (yes, I'm killing a character this year) and someone wants to buy the land from the family. The don't want the park; just the land. Iris's family has kept her in the dark on both of these items and she's feeling a little left out of the family. We've also met Ethel, the Mason family cat (so Pumpkin gets her wish of more cats in the novel since there were zero at the beginning). That's where we are today. I have to decide which of the endings I want to use, bring back Charlie Briggs (sorry Julie, he's not an actual unicorn), and decide the fate of Land of Legends. Sounds like a good weekend to me.

I will win this thing. November doesn't get to kick my ass.

Coming soon to the Island: the conclusion of NaNoWriMo, The Eye Shadow Experiment (no, I did not join a band but it is an excellent band name), a check in on how online dating is going, and my guide to not hating the holidays.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

NaNoWriMo: The end of 1997

Skipping ahead again to chapter twelve, the last chapter of the Part One of this year's novel. Iris, our heroine, has turned thirteen, got a present from a boy, and decided to be an artist when she grows up. On her last night before 8th grade, she takes one more trip to the unicorn grove. Next up: Part Two, grown-up Iris, and the getting to the end of this year's novel.

Chapter Twelve

Tomorrow would be her first day of eighth grade. Iris was excited to start another school year and to experience a taste of of high school. She wasn’t sure what to wear on her first day; should she try to look less like a thirteen year old and more like a sophisticated new freshman? Frankly, she didn’t even know what that meant so she kept with her standards, simple and not flashy. Aunt Bronwyn had taken Brigid and Iris school clothes shopping a few weeks ago. She let Iris buy a bunch of black t-shirts and sweaters (more than her dad would have allowed) and some fun skirts that were much more teenage girl than middle schooler. Iris always planned her first week of school outfits so she didn’t have to worry about what to wear; it was hard getting back into the swing of school and set schedule after a summer of having to be nowhere in particular.
After deciding on her new jeans, black t-shirt, and a green sweater for her first day of art class (the second day of school), Iris sat down to write another letter to Charlie. She wasn’t sure if he had received her thank you note/drawing yet but wanted to get in the habit of writing to him. She had the idea after dinner with Dad; having a pen pal could be fun. Her dad told her about his junior high pen pal and how he and her mother had written to each other during college. It made her parents seem way more romantic than they actually were. Her dad also agreed to take Iris to DC over  fall break in October. She wanted  to see some exhibits at the National Gallery of Art; Dad wanted to visit some of his friends from college who lived in Alexandria. It all worked out. They loved road trips and she was looking forward to making mix tapes and planning their snacks. She hoped Charlie would be able to come to the museum with her or hang out at some point before she left. That’s why the letter was important.
Dear Charlie, 8/24/1997
How are you? Did you start school yet? My first day is tomorrow. I’m pretty excited to go back to school this year; I get to take art classes at the high school two days every week. It’s kind of cool that I get to do that.
My dad said that we can come to DC over my fall break in October? Do you have a fall break? We’ll be there October 15-18th. If you’re around maybe you can come to the National Gallery of Art with us or Natural History. Those are two of the museums we’re going to. We’re staying in Alexandria with my dad’s college friends. They’re really nice and I get to stay in this cool attic bedroom they made in their new house. Let me know if you can come. You can call me if you want to. My phone number is 540-212-6678.
Did you like the picture I sent you? I drew some other ones with a female character added, like a dragon slaying duo. I was thinking of making them into a comic book. I’ve never made something like that before but it seems like a good idea. Dragons are pretty cool.
Write me back and let me know if you’ll be around in October.
Your friend,

She sealed the envelope and got it ready to mail. She set it with her backpack and art case by her bedroom door. She could put it in the mailbox on her way to the bus stop in the morning. She was ready for this school year to get started.
After dinner with her dad, Iris felt better about herself and her goal of being an artist. She could focus on getting better and finding her personal style in her art. She could stop drawing her babyish unicorns and mermaids and decide what type of artist she really wanted to be. She spent more time over the weekend working on her dragon pictures; she thought they could make a really great comic. Granted she had never read comics before but she had a sense about it. Her dad had a box of comics in the attic. He brought them down for her to look at for inspiration. Most of his were about superheroes like Superman and Batman and the Amazing Spiderman. She liked the panels and the way that format jumped off the page at her. The dialogue didn’t have to be long. She worried about the writing part but short dialogue might not be so bad. Just one more part of her goal.
The whole family was coming over for dinner later tonight. Iris decided she wanted to make a final visit to Land of Legends to mark the official end of summer. She had some time before she had to start helping with dinner. Other than her walk with Grandpa, she hadn’t been to the park much since the Fourth of July. She felt like she needed to say goodbye to the park somehow. She looked around her room for something to mark the end of this era for her. She spotted her glass unicorn figurine sitting on the window sill. She decided she would bury the figurine and a drawing in the grove by the unicorns. If she was lucky she could come back in twenty years or something like that and dig it up. Like a time capsule.
She looked through her recent drawings and picked one o f her unnamed heroine riding a unicorn-like horse into battle against a ferocious, evil red dragon. She turned it over and wrote a note to her grown-up self:
To the older me, 8/24/1997
Hopefully I remember to come back when I’m older and find this package in my secret hiding place at Land of Legends. I buried this a few days after turning thirteen and a day before the start of 8th grade. This was a fun but weird summer. I made a new friend, Charlie, over the summer. I got to wear lip gloss for the first time and I decided to become an artist. That’s what I want to be. Whenever I come back and dig this up again I hope that this dream will have come true. It would be cool to be a real artist.
Remember that this is were the drawing started - Land of Legends. If it weren’t for the unicorns and the kraken and the dragons being an artist would never have occurred to me as something I could be.
Anyway, I hope I have a really cool place to live like an apartment in New York like on ‘Friends’ or a house somewhere cool. Always have Fruit Loops for breakfast on Friday.
13 Year Old Iris

Iris went down to the office and found a small plastic mailing envelope for her time capsule. She folded her picture/letter and wrapped the unicorn in it. It all fit snugly in the envelope. She taped it shut and wrote “Iris Mason, 8/24/1997” on the front with a Sharpie. She made one more stop in the tool shed for a small shovel and made her way to the front of Land of Legends.
She followed the same path that she had walked so many times before. The one she had taken with Charlie and with Grandpa; start at the Yeti’s Cave, walk to the Walkway of the Gods, through the minotaur’s maze, and use the trick exit to get to the other side quickly. Walk towards the beckoning mermaids and other Creatures of the Sea. Iris paused at the Kraken, saluted the sinking ship, cut over to the dragon, and caught the Fairy Trail to the Fairy Forest. There weren’t many visitors on the grounds so Iris was able to move quickly to her final destination. No one was in the clearing by the unicorns; she was able to climb into her hiding place unseen. She dug a hole big enough for her envelope time capsule. She tucked it in and covered it with dirt. She made a wish for her dreams to come true. “I’ll see you in the future when everything I wished for has come true. Don’t go anywhere.”

Iris crawled out of the grove and took one more look at the unicorns and fairies she had spent so much time with over her first thirteen years. “I’ll be back sometime. I promise.” She turned away from the display and went back home.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

NaNoWriMo: Jumping ahead - Chapter 7

I decided not to post chapters 4-6 not because they don't exist (trust me they do) or because I they're not good but I thought it would be fun to jump ahead a bit. Here's the recap of what happened since my last post: We meet Lydia, Iris's best friend, Land of Legends gears up for the Fourth of July, Charlie makes another appearance, and Iris decides not to buy contraband lip gloss. I also wrote an entire paragraph about nail polish brands from the 90s. Please excuse any typos, misspellings, or grammar issues.

Chapter Seven

    Virginia summers are not for the faint at heart. The heat wasn’t so bad; it was the humidity that always got to Iris. It wasn’t ideal for spending time outside. As July faded into August, Iris spent less time in her drawing grove and more time indoors. Iris hadn’t meant to abandon her hiding place but she found that she couldn’t accomplish that much when it was so hot and humid. She hadn’t really spent all that much time outside since the Fourth of July; her dad let her sign up for art classes three days a week and she spent other days with Lydia or with her grandma. Today would be an exception. Today she was walking the park with her grandpa.
    Walking the park wasn’t something new to Iris. She often met up with her grandpa on summer afternoons, walking around the park with him to greet visitors and check on how things were going in each display area. Her grandpa would tell her stories about the creatures in each area; why he picked the Chimera over the Cyclops for example or why there was only one type of fairy in the Fairy Forest rather than the dozens Iris knew existed in folklore. He also shared stories about her dad when he was her age. He loved the park as much if not more than her grandpa and had spent his summers much like Iris. He drew the creatures and designed new displays he hoped to build one day. Daniel was Land of Legends as much as her grandpa was.
    Today was different. Her grandpa asked her to walk the park with him first thing in the morning. He never asked anyone to do that. The morning walk was his time in the park, before visitors and workers came in, before the the park really came alive. Iris wasn’t sure why he picked today; she suspected it was because her birthday was next week and this was part of her birthday present. Secretly, she hoped he would tell her the creatures were all real and they came to life when the moon was full. She figured being thirteen was important to that process. She hoped the walk would be all about her grandpa telling her how to care for the creatures when they did come alive. Iris knew this was silly and childish but that didn’t keep her from hoping it was true.
    She dressed carefully in her favorite shorts and a pink Land of Legends t-shirt. It had Pegasus and a mermaid on it. Iris probably had every t-shirt and sweatshirt available from the shop. Her favorites included one with unicorns and a newer version featuring the Kraken and the ship. She hadn’t worn that one yet but decided against it for today. Today seemed more like a Pegasus kind of day.
    Iris didn’t want to be late for her walk. She set two alarms so she’d get up on time. She could hear her grandma in the kitchen and smell coffee. Her dad was probably up already too. Iris made her way down to the kitchen for breakfast.
    “Well you’re up early today.” Her grandma was not used to seeing Iris up so early.
    “I’m going on a park walk with grandpa today. Didn’t he tell you?” Iris sat down and drank a glass of apple juice. She only drank apple juice in the mornings.
    “How ever could I forget? It’s a big day. I’m not even allowed to go on morning park walks with your grandpa.” Maeva smiled at her granddaughter. She hadn’t seen Iris this excited since the Fourth of July.
    “Why do you think he asked me to go? He never does.” Iris poured herself a bowl of Fruit Loops; she had Fruit Loops for breakfast every Friday.
    “Who knows? You know your grandpa likes to do whatever he wants. It’s one of the reasons we opened Land of Legends in the first place. Do you want some toast with your Fruit Loops?”
    “No thank you and you know I can make toast on my own. You don’t have to do everything for me.”
    “I know, honey, but I like doing these sorts of things. It’s my job.” Maeve patted Iris on the shoulder.
    Iris loved her grandparents. None of her friends lived with their grandparents; most of her friends only saw their grandparents a few times during the year. She felt lucky to have them in her life so much. Between her grandma and Aunt Bronwyn it was like she had two moms. She was looking forward to her makeover next week with Aunt Bronwyn and the cake her grandma made every year. Birthdays were a big deal in the Mason household. Iris was getting excited and it was still a week away.
    Her dad came into the kitchen next. He gave Iris a kiss on the top of her head and sat down for coffee. Daniel never ate breakfast despite the fact that he made Iris. He told her when she was old enough she could make those decisions on her own but until then, she had to eat breakfast every day. She wasn’t sure how old she had to be but figured it was not almost thirteen or even thirteen.
    “Are you excited about your walk with grandpa?” Daniel grabbed the paper.
    “It’s going to be fun,” replied Iris. She was trying not to appear too excited.
    “It’s pretty cool. He did the same thing when I turned thirteen. It was a big day.”
    Iris didn’t know about that. “Did he do the same thing for Aunt Bronwyn?”
    “Not that I know of. She never really took to Land of Legends like I did or you do. She works her because she can in the summers not because this is her life’s work. Land of Legends is not really a career but a life choice. Maybe Grandpa thinks you’re going to take all of this over one day.”
    “I don’t know, Dad, that’s a big deal. I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. What if I want to be an artist or be a teacher or I don’t know, be an astronaut?”
    “Don’t worry about it, Iris. Grandpa just wants to share it with someone and he picked you. You’re going to have fun.”
    Just as he said that her grandpa came into the kitchen. “Are you ready, Iris? We’ve got a lot to do this morning.”
    “I just have to put my bowl in the sink.” Iris got up and rinsed her bowl out. She turned to her grandpa. “Ready.”
    “Let’s go walk the park.” Grandpa took Iris’s hand and they left the kitchen.
    Maeve and Daniel exchanged a look. “You shouldn’t tell her those things, Daniel. She doesn’t have to stay here and run the park. Iris should be able to do whatever she wants in life. You didn’t have to come back either; you made a choice. Don’t make this a bigger deal than it is.” Maeve wanted more for Iris than Land of Legends and running a roadside attraction. She wanted more for Iris than Saunders. Maeve wanted Iris to know that she could do anything that she wanted to do.
    “You can’t say that it’s not entirely true. You know Dad wants Iris to take over one day. It’s not going to happen for a long time obviously but it’s what he wants. I want Iris to do whatever she wants to do but that’s not going to stop Dad from trying his best to get her to stay here. She loves Land of Legends. You’ve seen all her drawings and there’s nothing wrong with him encouraging her to take on the family business. If that’s what she wants. I tried something else and came back. Maybe she’ll do the same.”
    “You better do everything in your power to make sure she knows that there is more to life than Saunders. Do you understand me?” Maeve took her granddaughter’s future very seriously.
    “I know, Mom. Iris will do whatever Iris wants to do. Don’t worry.” He finished his coffee and left to start his day. “I promise.”

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

NaNoWriMo: Chapters 2 and 3

My friend, Julie, told me this morning that she'd like to read the novel as I write it so I'll be sharing one-two chapters at a time throughout the month. By the end, the whole novel will be here on Island. Thanks for reading - remember NaNoWriMo is about writing not editing so please excuse typos, misspellings, and grammar issues.

Chapter Two

The gift shop was Irish’s second favorite place at Land of Legends. It wasn’t just a shop; it was the hub of operations and another great place to watch people and practice. The gift shop building was divided into two parts: one part of it was a traditional gift shop for a roadside attraction in a tiny Virginia town. On the other side there was a small cafe that served homemade (by her grandma and aunt) baked goods and sandwiches. On the shop side there were rows and rows of figurines lining shelves against one wall. Every creature and beast featured in the park had at least one figurine. T-shirts and sweatshirts hung along another wall. Bins of buttons and keychains lined the area nearest to the cash register. Iris’s dad moved them there to deter theft. There were several displays of her aunt’s artwork for sale too. There was also a small bookstore where a visitor could find books on mythical creatures of all types. Her favorite was about the kraken. It included a bunch of coloring pages; Iris was using them to learn to draw the kraken in different forms. It was cool and was getting her out of her comfort zone of unicorns and dragons.
Summer season was the busiest season at Land of Legends. Summer hours started in late May, right before Memorial Day and lasted until the end of September. The park was open from 9 am to 9 pm and the staff increased from just the family to five college students and two maintenance men. The two maintenance men had been working at Land of Legends since before Iris was born; Mr. Jim and Mr. Bob were friends of her grandfather and had worked at his auto shop before he opened the park. They helped keep all the displays neat and did repairs on the larger figures like the kraken and Bigfoot. Mr. Bob was a great painter and often let Iris help him with the scales on the dragons.
The line was long at the entrance of the store. That was a good sign. Visitors bought their tickets at the entrance, currently being manned by one of the college students whose name Iris couldn’t remember. Once they had their tickets, they could enter the park two ways: through a door that led them directly into the Fairy Forest or through a door that led them to the Yeti’s cave. Iris preferred the Fairy Forest entrance. It was the prettiest part of Land of Legends. Iris always told families with girls to go in that way since girls seemed to like that part of the park best. It was her favorite too although the kraken was growing on her.
Iris’s dad was working in the cafe; she could see the top of his head from where she was standing. Normally Aunt Bronwyn was in charge of the cafe but her dad filled in when Bronwyn took a day off. When not in the cafe, he mostly worked in the office taking care of the books and running the business side of the park. He wrote most of the information boxes within each part of the displays. His history background and interest in mythology (just like his dad) helped keep the boxes accurate and interesting. He liked to find odd facts and unusual versions of the myths and legends to keep it fresh.
Iris decided to go help her dad. She could work on her button reorganization project another day. Her plan was to put them in order to form an image of one of the creatures from the park. Her attempts so far hadn’t worked so a break was in order. There weren’t enough white buttons to make a yeti or brown ones for Bigfoot. Her next idea was a dragon since they could be any color. She skirted around the line and entered the small cafe.
The cafe was her grandmother’s contribution to Land of Legends. When the park first opened, there weren’t any places for miles for lunch or a snack. The closet diner was thirty minutes away and most families didn’t pack a lunch even in 1964. Maeve had the idea that if they sold some light snacks and baked goods visitors would be happier and it would be more revenue in the long run. For the first few years, Maeve did all the food prep and baked all the pastries herself. Eventually she hired a few local ladies to help and the cafe took on a life of its own. Maeve still did some of the baking when she felt up to it. Her brownies and peanut butter cookies were famous in Saunders.
Her dad, Daniel, was ringing up a customer so Iris slipped behind the counter and started refilling sugar dispensers. She wasn’t really allowed to do much more than that or straightening and organizing in the gift shop. She was only ten and wasn’t really supposed to be working. No one really cared and most customers found it endearing. Iris liked being at the park during the summer and liked being helpful.
Daniel finished up with the customers and turned to his daughter. “I didn’t expect to see you until this afternoon, Iris. Was it too hot out today?”
“Grandma asked the same thing. No, there was a family in the Fairy Forest and one of the kids saw me. I wasn’t sure if they’d come back and bother me so I came inside. I can go back later or tomorrow. It’s not a big deal.” Iris finished with the sugar dispensers and starting filling up the display case with more cookies and brownies.
“How did anyone see you? I know where you are and I can never see you.” Her dad wiped down the counter and sat down on a stool.
“Your eyes must be bad then. Or you’re joking with me. Only Brigid and David can’t find me. They don’t look hard enough.” Iris sat on another stool facing her dad.
“You should be nicer to your cousins. They’ve had a rough few years and they love you very much.”
“I’m always nice to them and I played pirates three times last week.” When her dad looked away, Iris took a peanut butter cookie from the display case. They were her favorites.
“I saw that. I always see it when you steal cookies.” Her laughed ruffled her hair and went into the kitchen. He came back with glasses of milk and joined Iris in a peanut butter cookie.
“You can draw in here and keep me company. You don’t need to help out today. The summer staff have everything under control.” Her left Iris to finish her milk and set up her secondary studio at the end of the cafe counter.
Iris set up her pencils and sketchbook. She decided to finish the picture she started of the girl and boy in the Fairy Forest. She drew the little girl in a Red Riding Hood like cape, like she had strayed from the path in the woods and found the unicorns. The boy was an archer and he guarded over the magical creatures so humans couldn’t hurt them. It had a sort of fairy tale mixed with Robin Hood vibe; Iris liked it. The unicorns were a snap to add in; she’d drawn them so many times before. When Iris got into a drawing she often lost track of time and what was going on around her. Her aunt called it “the zone” and said all good artists were like that. She thought Iris would be a great artist one day.
She didn’t notice any of the visitors coming in and out of the cafe. She kept adding layers to her drawing and adding shadows where the sun peeked through the trees in the Fairy Forest. Her memory of the tableau was perfect; she’d been drawing them since she could pick up a pencil. She was so involved in what she was doing that she didn’t notice the boy standing in front of her.
“That’s me. Why are you drawing me?” He didn’t seem angry just curious.
“I draw people in the park. I saw you and your sister earlier and decided to add you to my new unicorn picture.” Iris put down her pencil and started to close her sketchbook.
“I want to see it. And she’s not my sister; she’s my cousin. And she’s a brat.” The boy turned Iris’s sketchbook around so he could get a better look. “You made me into Robin Hood. That’s cool.”
“You know Robin Hood?” Iris was always surprised when people knew the stories she drew or that were around the park.
“It’s the best Disney movie.” He started to flip through the rest of the book.
“Hey! Those aren’t yours. You can’t look at them!” Iris tried to grab her book but he took it off the counter and out of her reach.
Iris ducked under the opening at the end of the counter and ran over to him. “I want my book back.” She tried to grab it again but he stepped back and held it over his head.
“I’m not finished looking. You’re pretty good at drawing.” He sat down in an empty booth and continued flipping through the book. “My name’s Charlie. What’s yours?”
“Iris.” Iris slide across from him on the other side of the booth.
“Like the flower?”
“Like Greek goddess. She was the goddess of the rainbow and was the messenger of the gods. That’s what my grandma told me.”
“That’s cool. I’m named after my dad and granddad. I’m the third Charles Riggs.”
“Is it weird not having your own name?” Iris didn’t understand being named after someone.
“I don’t mind and I’m the only one called Charlie so it’s like I have my own name.” He finished looking through her sketchbook and pushed it across the table to her.
“Did you like Land of Legends?” Iris put her book in the booth next to her so he couldn’t take it again.
“The dragons were pretty cool but everything looks kind of dirty and old. I guess it’s because it’s all outside. It’d be cooler if they moved or really breathed fire. I don’t know how that would work.”
Iris sighed. People said this all the time. “My dad says it’s too hard to make them move. He and my grandpa have been trying to figure out how to make them move but it never works. I don’t think they’d be able to really breath fire. That’s really dangerous.”
“I guess. It would still be cool though.”
Iris saw his family coming through from the gift shop. The girl, Elaine, had a huge stuffed unicorn. It was one of the biggest items for sale in the shop. It was silly looking; Iris didn’t understand why anyone would want it. “Your family is here.”
“I guess I should go. My aunt and uncle want to get back on the road. They live in Washington, DC but have to drop me off at home first.”
“Where do you live?” Iris was suddenly curious about Charlie.
“Arlington, VA. Have you heard of it?”
“Not really. I know where DC is though. My dad and I go to the museums a lot. I like Natural History and the art museums.”
“Natural History is my favorite too. The dinosaurs are cool.”
“They’re the best part.”
Charlie’s aunt called out to him that it was time to go.
“Thanks for letting me look at your pictures. They’re really good.” Charlie held out his hand for Iris to shake.
She looked at him like he was an alien but then shook his hand. “Wait a sec.” Iris opened her sketchbook and tore out the picture of Charlie and Elaine. “You can have this.”
Charlie paused before taking the picture, “You have to sign it. Artists sign their pictures.”
“Ok.” Iris signed her name in messy cursive and gave the picture back to him.
“Thanks. Maybe I’ll come back to visit before the end of the summer. You can show me around the park.”
“That would be fun. There are hidden paths that I bet you didn’t find today.”
“Nope. We mostly stayed on the path and Elaine complained the whole time about dirt.”
Iris laughed. Elaine didn’t seem like a Land of Legends kind of person.
“Thanks again for the picture.”
“You’re welcome.”
Charlie turned and walked towards his family. As he joined them, he turned back and waved to Iris. She waved back. She climbed back into the booth and watched them out the cafe window. The stuffed unicorn took up most of the backseat; Charlie was pushed against the door. He looked uncomfortable. He saw Iris watching them and waved one more time. She waved back and watched them leave the parking lot.
Iris wasn’t sure what she was feeling. Her stomach was doing little flip flops and she was excited at the same time. Was this what having a crush on a boy felt like? Iris would have to ask her aunt the next time she was here. Maybe he’d come back and visit again. Iris took her sketchbook back to the counter and starting working on another drawing. She drew until her dad called her for dinner. Her last picture was of Charlie fighting a dragon. She thought it was one of her best.

Chapter Three

A few weeks passed since Iris met Charlie. She looked for him on days when she hung around Land of Legends but he hadn’t returned. She figured she wouldn’t see him again. She decided to stop drawing her dragon story and went back to mythical creatures. Maybe her story was silly. Who would want to read about a boy dragons? She did but maybe she was the weirdo.
She had spent the end of June at the beach with her aunt and cousins. Aunt Bronwyn always took them to Virginia Beach in June. The rest of the summer was too busy at the park to be away. Iris loved her time at the beach. She used the time to work on her watercolor paintings, using sunsets and sunrises and the ocean for inspiration. She made an extra effort to be nicer to her cousins. She didn’t hide the entire trip and even played pirates several days in a row. Her dad knew she was trying. Her dad and grandparents came down for the weekend. They didn’t like leaving the park “unattended”  but trusted Mr. Jim and Mr. Bob to look after things for two days. Iris got to ride home in the big truck from the park. She felt like she was in a parade the whole ride home.
July approached and with it crowds and crowds of people visiting Land of Legends. Saunders was between Winchester and Richmond, a blip of a town. If you didn’t know it was there you’d drive on past. Land of Legends was one of several attractions in the area. The others were mostly caverns or connected with the Shenandoahs. People often stopped on their way to campgrounds or on the way to somewhere else. Several wineries had just starting popping up; traffic to those places took people right past Land of Legends. Bigfoot beckoned from the side of road.
The Fourth of July was the biggest event of the summer. Back in the seventies, the park had offered to host the town picnic and fireworks display. The picnic was set up amongst the unicorns in Fairy Forest and along the pathways surrounding the dragons. Given all the tree cover in the park, the fireworks were set up in a field adjacent to the park, owned by a farmer who didn’t use it. His family had owned the land since Saunders was founded but the back field was never used. Visitors could sit along the edge of the park, near the kraken or just beyond it, and see the fireworks display.
Over the years, the festivities expanded to include non-town residents. The family had decided long ago to waive the entry fee on the Fourth to ensure that everyone could enjoy the day. What they lost in ticket sales they made up for in gift shop purchases and extra cafe purchases. Most of the baked goods for the picnic were donated too; Maeve’s pies were legendary in Saunders.
Excitement was building around the park. Iris and her cousins spent the week helping decorate the shop and cafe. They draped everything that could hold a decoration with red, white, and blue streamers or bunting. Her dad created an Uncle Sam puppet for the picnic; he greeted visitors not too far from the statue of Bigfoot. Iris thought he was creepy, but people seemed to enjoy it. Her dad brought Uncle Sam out every year. Iris’s best friend, Lydia, agreed with her. She spent the night on the fourth and the two girls spent a ton of time making sure they couldn’t see Creepy Uncle Sam from Iris’s bedroom window.
Iris’s other big job was helping her aunt and grandma with baking and keeping the kitchen moving. Since she was the oldest she had the most responsibilities and was in charge of her cousins. Her aunt let her measure ingredients for cookies and cupcakes; her grandma let her scoop filling into pies. Her hands were still a little purple from helping with the blueberry pies early. Her dad had been calling her Violet all morning. They were planning to watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory after the fireworks.
She and her cousins were working on packaging cookies for sale in cafe and covering pies with plastic wrap. Iris supervised her cousins and tried not to be too bossy. Brigid was good at making things neat and pretty. David was a seven year old boy. He was a disaster; Iris has spent most of the morning redoing most of his work. His mother finally sent him outside to help after he dropped a strawberry pie on the floor. He ate part of it before she could get to him. Boys.
Iris and Brigid were almost done with the cookies. Once they finished they could go outside and play (or draw in Iris’s case). She was so engrossed in her task and getting it done that she didn’t hear her name being called. When she did finally look up, there was Charlie.
“I’ve been calling your name forever. What are you doing?”
Brigid responded before Iris had a change, “Putting cookies in bags. It’s for the picnic. What are you?” She was suspicious for strangers even if they were kids.
“I’m Charlie. I’m Iris’s friend. What’s your name?”
Brigid gave her cousin a look and raised her eyebrow. Iris didn’t have friends Brigid didn’t know. “I don’t think you’re her friend. You’re not from here and we only know people from here.”
“Brigid, you’re being rude. Stop being a pest. Charlie visited the park a few weeks ago. He’s ok even if he did try to steal my sketchbook.” Iris made a face at Brigid which Brigid was ignoring.
“Don’t be mean, Iris. You’re not supposed to be mean to me. Uncle Daniel said you have to be nice to me.”
“I’m not being mean. You’re being rude. Charlie is our guest and you need to be nicer to him. And I’m just being honest, you’re being a pest.” Iris smiled at Charlie. “We’re almost done. If you want to wait in the shop, I can show you around.”
Charlie sat down next to Brigid, “Or I could help. We get done faster if I help.”
“Ok. Just put three cookies in each bag and close the bag with a twist tie.” Iris showed him a completed bag.
“Got it.”
The trio worked in silence and got through the rest of the cookie bags in no time. Charlie helped Iris take the completed bags into the kitchen. Her aunt gave them some cookies and popcorn to take on their park visit. She winked at Iris as walked back into the cafe.
“I think Iris has a crush.” Bronwyn said to her mother.
“It looks that way doesn’t it? Maeve replied.
Bronwyn wistfully after the pair, “Summer crushes are the best kind of crushes.”