Hello there! It’s been a little while since the last newsletter, but it was good to be able to go “off the air” over summer. New Zealand is in a strange place at the moment, with Omicron surging (in a hopefully-controlled process of slowly pulling back on some of our health restrictions) and what with protests happening in most of our cities (against vaccine mandates), and the war unfolding in Ukraine, the news is just crammed with scenes of conflict. At times it’s really hard to pull away, and try and find positive things to write about.
But over the past couple of months I’ve been thinking about how I’d like to approach the newsletter in the coming year. What will be fun to write? What will be (hopefully) fun to read?
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this, and the plan is to alternate sending out short stories with strange research topics or findings. I keep saying to myself, “I really need to take the time to learn more about x.” Well, here’s an opportunity to put a little bit of a deadline around that.
What sort of topics do I mean? Well, some of the things on my list include: how time travel works; researching spaceship design; looking at climate change and how people have written about it in the past; a deep-dive into other random things (like cicadas! I’m so into those guys right now). I plan to start on spaceship design next month; it’ll tie in with a short story I’m writing right now about people who live and work on a trash planet.
This month I’m sending you a recent short story, “Last Call at the Stargazer.” It’s a funny one, a bit twee, a bit silly, but I do like it all the same. My writing group enjoyed it too, so I hope you like it! I’m including it here at the bottom of the email.
Tools I’ve been using
I’ve wanted to write for ages about some of the writing tools I enjoy using. I love reading about other people’s writing processes (and the Guardian series about writers’ rooms a while ago was wonderful too), and I guess writing about my own is just a natural extension of that.
I write both on paper and on my laptop. Currently I’m in the Apple ecosystem, though in the past I’ve also used Windows and Linux. I’ve had the least amount of frustration (lately) with my Mac setup, but I still do like to support software that releases across platforms, if I can.
Software that gets the most use these days includes:
Obsidian. The best wiki / second-brain software I’ve come across (and I have used a lot of them). I love that Obsidian can work on an existing file structure, and is so, so customisable. I keep all sorts in here, not just writing-work, and sync it to GitHub using the excellent community plugin, ‘Obsidian Git.’ I don’t tend to compose or draft in there, though I do keep and organise my stories and newsletter posts there, along with my zettelkasten, reference notes, and research “stuff.”
Scrivener. The very-unsurprising revelation. Scrivener gets out of the way, and is generally great to use. Syncing isn’t perfect (I use Dropbox) but since I started writing mostly-exclusively on my MacBook Air I’ve had fewer issues on that front.
If Scrivener is unfamiliar to you, it’s basically a tool to let you write or edit your pieces in separate ‘bits,’ or scrivenings. There are all sorts of different ways you can view these, including a drag-and-drop scene card view, that replicates using index cards to structure your work.
I’ve used (and enjoyed) Ulysses in the past (another app that’s similar to Scrivener) but dropped it when they moved to their subscription model (after I dropped a large sum of money on buying the standalone apps for both mobile and desktop). I like Scrivener’s ‘pay-once’ model, and have supported them by buying it for Mac, iOS, and Windows over the years.
It can be complicated, but you can also ignore a lot of the functionality until you actually need to use it. And there are heaps of tutorials around (and also within the software itself).
iA Writer. Sometimes you just want a simple view. Text on a white background. You can do this in Scrivener, but there’s something about iA Writer that takes it a step further. (I’m writing this in iA Writer right now.) It’s simple, is markdown-based, and can be used for any text file. I compose most of my blog posts in here (which I then publish just by dragging a draft file from one Dropbox folder to another, using Blot.im), and it’s 100% fantastic.
Cold Turkey Writer. This is a new one for me, but already I’m happy I started using it. Cold Turkey Writer lets you specify a period of time, or number of words you’d like to write. And then it locks you out of everything apart from that text file. I’m currently syncing a file from Scrivener to a Dropbox location (otherwise Scrivener is a bit of a closed system, in terms of being able to access the individual files themselves), and pointing CTW to that file.
It’s a great way to force myself to sit down and write for half an hour without succumbing to distractions. I really recommend it. The basic version is free, and to be honest that’s all you really need. But I paid the $12 NZD for the ‘pro’ version, just because I wanted to support the app.
I think I’ll save the ins-and-outs of what I use for my analogue writing for another newsletter (this has already got rather long)! But if you have any questions about the above please give me a shout. I’m always happy to nerd-out about tech and software and workflows.
Thanks again for subscribing! I’d love to hear from you about anything. Just hit reply, or email email@example.com.
Until next time,
Last Call At the Stargazer
By Jessica Nickelsen
It’s night-time at The Stargazer, and a bartender is emptying the dishwasher, drying glasses with a soft red towel, and stacking them on shelves. Nearby, towards the end of the bar, sits a man, in a dark green sweater, munching on peanuts and drinking an Old Fashioned. His mild eyes move over the labels of the bottles on the shelf, over the bartender’s shoulder.
The CD ends, and the bartender wipes his hands on the towel and flips it over his shoulder. He looks over to the man in the sweater. “Going to change the music– any requests?” he asks.
The man finishes chewing a peanut, and answers, “how about some blues?” The bartender wrinkles his forehead. “I think we’ve got something…”
“I don’t mean honkey-tonk, you know, raucous slide guitar and the rest of it,” the man continues. “How about something soft. Something sad.”
Now the bartender raises his eyebrows. “They’re not exactly going to come flocking in if I’m blasting sad music out over the street.”
The man slips a twenty-dollar bill across the bar. “Please.”
The bartender rests a finger on the bill. Touches it for a moment, thinking. Then slides it towards himself, and pockets it. “Sure thing.” He bends down to the CD machine, and not long after, Billie Holiday starts singing “The Man I Love”. “Acceptable?” he asks when he stands up again.
The man at the bar nods, and smiles. “It’s a bit of a cliché, isn’t it?” He says. “But you got the sentiment right. It’ll do.”
The bartender, thinking about what he might do with a spare twenty bucks, nods, and starts loading the dirty dishes. The guy from the earlier shift was meant to do it, but his wife is heavily pregnant and hates it when he gets home late. The bartender doesn’t really mind. For some reason he doesn’t mind doing the dishes at work–not that he really has much of a choice. But he really hates doing them at home. They’re always piling up in the sink.
A woman steps in off the street. She shakes the rain from her umbrella and then folds it neatly. She slowly approaches the bar, and purses her lips as she looks up at the bottles behind the bartender. He slides her the wine list, just in case.
She smiles at him across the bar. “Thanks, but I think I’ll have a beer.” She looks over at the draft beer and orders a half-pint of pilsner. As he pours her the drink she watches him carefully. After she pays and takes her beer from the counter, she looks around. The bar is pretty empty, and apart from a man at a table towards the back who is reading a book and not looking up at all, there’s just the man in the sweater who likes sad music. The woman nods at him and sits down nearby, with a seat between them.
“Hello,” she says, and takes a sip of her beer.
He nods and says hello. He seems content to just sit, listen to music, and watch the bartender run through his cleaning list. Most people have to fill the empty space with something, the bartender thinks. Their phones, usually. But this guy seems content. The resting state of his eyes and mouth carry signs of someone who smiles often, despite the deep lines on his brow. A mostly-happy guy, who likes to listen to sad music. Why not.
“It’s pretty wet out there,” she says, gesturing outside. “I’m glad I brought my umbrella to work today.”
“It’s pretty late,” he answers. “What do you do?”
“Oh, I’m just a regular wage slave”, she replies. “Nine to five. But I’ve been out for dinner. Blind date.” She shrugs.
“How’d it go?” He reaches for more peanuts.
“Not great. Oh, I suppose the guy was nice, but he pretty much didn’t stop talking about himself the whole time.”
“Maybe he was trying to impress you.”
“I suppose. I didn’t even particularly want to talk about myself, but a little back-and-forth would have been good.” She sighs and sips her beer again.
“What does he do?”
“For a job. Your blind date. What does he do for a job?”
“He’s a large-animal vet. Horses and things like that.”
“In the city?”
“Seems a weird job to have in the city. How many horses can there possibly be around here? Or other large animals?” He wonders. “Or does he do elephants and things like that?”
“No, apparently that’s a whole other speciality. I wondered about that myself, but didn’t get the chance to ask.”
“Huh.” The man in the sweater has finished his Old Fashioned and now he waves over to bartender.
“Another of the same?” the bartender asks.
The bartender looks at the bottle of Maker’s Mark on the shelf. “We’re just about out, and the alcohol order doesn’t get here till morning. I can’t make you a full glass. This one’s on the house, if you like.”
The man in the sweater nods. “That’s fine. Much appreciated.”
They watch the bartender as he starts to make the drink. He splashes a sugar cube with bitters. As it turns out, there is just about enough left in the bottle to make a regular cocktail. The man in the sweater offers again to pay for the drink, but the bartender waves him off.
“It is late,” the woman says, as if answering a question. She looks over. The man is now sipping his drink. “What do you do? For a job.”
He smiles. “I’m a bus driver.”
The bartender looks at his watch. “Last call,” he says, loud enough so the man at the back can hear him.
The woman nods to him, then turns back to the man beside her. “A bus driver?” she looks surprised. “You don’t look like a bus driver.”
“Well, I am. What do you think a bus driver looks like, then?”
“I’m not sure,” she replies carefully. “The woman who drives the bus I catch in the mornings is in her fifties, I think. She always looks a bit tired and rushed. If I have to ask for change she mutters something under her breath. Every time. But I’m sure not all bus drivers look tired and rushed. Some must be happy.”
“I remember when I was a child, the man who drove the bus I caught to school was always really friendly,” she continues. “He always said hello, always gave you a smile. It felt good, to start the day with someone saying hello to you like that. Plus it didn’t feel as if he was saying it because he had to, because it was part of his job. It really felt genuine, like he was happy to see you.”
He nods again. “I’m not saying this just because you’ve brought this up, but making people happy on my bus is really important to me. Of course, that means getting people to their stop on time, but it also means creating a good atmosphere on the bus too.”
“Right! It’s so important to get where you’re going and to feel relaxed. I mean, that’s mostly why people catch the bus, right? So they don’t get stressed out in traffic.” She finishes her beer. “So what’s the secret?”
“Yes, the secret to being a successful bus driver. To keeping people happy, and creating a good atmosphere.” She snorts. “My office could use some tips. It’s awful there at the moment. We’re restructuring.” She raises a finger, as if she is making a bid at an auction, and the bartender nods, and begins to pour her another beer.
“We had that last year, with the bus company. They wanted to cut back on costs, so they merged some of the morning runs.”
“How’d it go?”
He smiles. “Terribly. Plus I was going through an awful time in my life. I was sure I was going to be one of the drivers to lose their job.”
“But you weren’t.”
The door to the pub slams open and a man comes in out of the rain. He is dressed all in blue: blue trousers and a cheap blue rain jacket that is soaked through. He wears black shoes with thick rubber soles. Still dripping, he comes up to the bar, but stubs his toe on one of the bar stools. He gasps but then leans in and rests his elbows on the counter.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asks. “It’s the last call, I’m afraid.”
He’d gone back to cutting lemon slices and he again wipes his hands on the towel before he comes over to the man in blue.
“Whisky,” the man answers. He scans the bottles. “Johnny Walker, maybe.” He avoids looking down the end of the bar where the others are sitting. He stares straight ahead, as if he is concentrating on something. When the whisky arrives he drinks it quickly and orders another.
The bartender narrows his eyes for a brief moment, sizing up his new customer, then nods and pours him another.
There is an intense aura of anger and misery coming from the man in blue. Everything stops around him. The man in the sweater goes back to eating peanuts and listening to the music. The woman sips her beer and nibbles on a hangnail.
Even the bartender stands warily beside the lemons, wondering if he ought to pick up the knife. He decides to leave it on the counter, and instead begins to empty out one of the small refrigerators. It needs a good wipe-down. His boss probably wouldn’t approve of him cleaning in front of the customers, but there’s only four of them, and they don’t seem to mind. Besides, he wants to get home early tonight.
Suddenly the man in blue exhales loudly. Then he comes over to the man in the sweater, carrying his whisky. The smell of it is strong in the air.
“You,” he says accusingly.
The man in the sweater nods. He doesn’t seem surprised. “Hi, Rob.”
“We don’t want any trouble,” the woman says. “We were just talking.” She grips the handle of her umbrella tightly.
“It’s okay,” the man in the sweater says. “We’re colleagues.” He gestures to the empty seat beside him but other man, Rob, shakes his head.
“I won’t sit with you,” he says. “You’re a thief.”
The woman moves down the bar, putting another seat between herself and the two men. She gives the man in the sweater an apologetic smile, as if to say, I don’t need more of this tonight, sorry.
“Hey now,” the bartender says gently. “Let’s keep it civil.”
The man in the sweater nods to the bartender, then turns to the other man. “We’ve been through this before. I’ve stolen nothing from you.”
“That’s not true. You stole my luck. I want it back.”
The woman looks over at them incredulously. Her look now says is this guy joking?
“I haven’t stolen anything,” the man in the sweater repeats. “My life’s just taken a turn for the better, for now. I didn’t take anything from you.”
“That’s not true!” Rob’s hand jerks and whisky sloshes over the edge of the glass on to his hand. He wipes it on his trousers. “Before…everything was better. Everything was going my way. Then you came along.”
“You forget,” the man in the sweater says. “I’ve had my share of hard times.”
“Sure, your wife died. But after then?” Rob reaches over and taps the woman on the arm. “Know what they call him at work? Lucky Joe. Lucky.” He sneers. “That used to be my luck.”
“No way,” the woman says. She’s unable to help herself. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Ridiculous? Is it ridiculous that he gets the buses that are in the best condition, all the time, while the rest of us have to drive the ones with the patched vinyl seats and graffiti on the sides?”
“That’s not true. And stop calling me that. Anyway, you complained about me and they gave you my bus.”
“Yes, and the next morning that motorcycle clipped the front of the bus, and then I got a flat tyre.”
“You can hardly blame me for that.”
“‘The seats are always so comfortable’, ‘the driver always takes such care’, ‘I love the music that he plays’.”
“Have you been reading my customer feedback?”
“You know what happened last time I tried to play my music on the bus? I got reprimanded!”
“Stop, this is getting ridiculous,” the man in the sweater–Lucky Joe–says. He stands up and grabs his raincoat, which has dried while he’s been sitting there. “Let’s stop bothering these people.”
Rob sneezes. He is wet through. “They say you’re always on time for every stop. Every stop. Even in rush hour. That’s impossible!”
Lucky Joe has his raincoat on and now he reaches for his hat. “Like I said–”
“Do you know who is always late? Who always gets the red lights, even in the middle of the night when no-one’s on the damn street? Do you know who gets the most negative feedback on their driving, the state of their bus, their manner? I try to say hello to people and they complain I’m being creepy. I try to just get on with things and they complain that I’m rude.”
Lucky Joe is slowly moving towards the door. He moves towards, and then past, the woman, and the man in blue follows him, glass in hand, still complaining.
“My girlfriend left me! My house got burgled, and my cat died!” Rob says. He knocks back his drink, slams the glass down on the bar. “My god damn cat!” He reaches in his pocket.
“Please don’t,” Lucky Joe says. “This isn’t going to end well.”
But it is too late. The gun is out, held in a sweating, shaking hand.
“Were you planning this?” Lucky Joe says. “You should have talked to me. I could have changed jobs or something.”
“Because you always fall on your feet?” Rob cries. “Well I need my job. And I’m about to goddamn lose it because of you!” He cocks the hammer.
Lucky Joe frowns. As Rob starts to squeeze the trigger Lucky Joe knows it’s time to close his eyes. It’s true that things have turned around–ever since his wife died, like Rob says. But it doesn’t mean he likes it when things go this way.
In any case: Lucky Joe closes his eyes and puts his hands down at his sides. At the same time, an exhaled breath, or tiny breeze makes a cocktail napkin flutter off the counter. The woman reflexively tries to grab the napkin, but she is still holding the umbrella’s handle, and she accidentally triggers its auto-opening mechanism. She gasps and lurches back in her seat as it opens with a POP, jangling the glassware that’s hanging upside down over the bar. She grabs for the felt mat that runs the length of the bar but it can’t slow her backwards momentum. It’s yanked backward as she falls, and a row of champagne bottles that are sitting on top of the mat while the bartender is wiping out the refrigerator, fall to the floor like bowling pins. One strikes the ground hard and smashes, and its cork shoots up past the bartender, who is gaping at the mess. The cork launches up towards the shelf of spirits over the bartender’s shoulder, and ricochets off the bottle of Johnny Walker. It shoots towards the man in blue, who recoils as the cork strikes the gun. His gun hand jerks up and his finger seizes on the trigger. The sound is deafening in that small place. The bullet shoots right through Lucky Joe’s hat, and embeds itself between the eyes of a taxidermied elk that is mounted over the door to the women’s toilets.
You know, the usual.
Rob, having fallen heavily to his knees, looks up from the floor. He’s dropped the gun, and it has skittered away somewhere in the chaos. For a moment he searches desperately around for it. “Please,” Lucky Joe says. “You’ve got to stop doing this.”
But Rob gets up, pulling a mother-of-pearl-handled switchblade from his sock as he moves. He presses the button on it, waiting for the blade to flick out. Nothing happens. “Typical!” he sobs. He turns and limps out into the night, rubber soles squeaking.
Lucky Joe helps the woman to her feet. “I’m so sorry,” he says. Without making eye contact with the bartender, Lucky Joe peels off several more twenty-dollar bills from the wad in his pocket. “This just keeps happening,” he says. “Everyone tells me it’s good luck, but I’m not so sure.”
He tips his hat to the woman and turns to leave, to the strains of “Laughing at Life,” but the woman lurches forward and catches his sleeve. She has got her coat on already. “Hey–before you go, can I get your number?” she asks.
As they leave together the bartender looks from the wad of cash in his hand, to the smashed bottles, and the elk with a smoking hole between its eyes. The CD, unnoticed, comes to an end. The smell of gunpowder lingers in the air as he reaches for his cloth and begins to wipe down the counter, while the man at the back of the room eventually goes back to his book.
© 2022, Jessica Nickelsen. All rights reserved.