The 2020 July Short Story Challenge – Day by Day

For starters, Smashwords is currently having its annual summer sale, where you can get plenty of e-books at reduced prices or for free, including several of mine.

Also Camestros Felapton is currently running his Hugo Fan Writer Finalist Week and had some nice things to say about me here.

In other news, blogging will be light this month, because I’m currently doing the July Short Story Challenge again.

What is the July Short Story Challenge, you ask? Well, in July 2015, Dean Wesley Smith announced that he was planning to write a brand new short story every day during the month of July. The original post seems to be gone now, but the Wayback Machine has a copy here. At the time, several people announced that they would play along, so I decided to give it a try as well. And then I did it again the following year. And the next. And the next. If you want to read my post-mortems of the previous July short story challenges, here are the posts for 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Because I’ve already done the July short story challenge five years in a row now and always found the experience very rewarding, I’m aiming for a repeat this year. Though for now, I’m only committing to doing this for a week, which is already half over. If things are going well, I’ll keep going, though I’m not sure if I can do the entire July this year, because Worldcon is at the end of the month and that will eat up my time and attention.

In previous years, I’ve always done a post-mortem post about the July Short Story Challenge in August. Last year, I also started keeping a running tally of all stories written to date right here on this blog to hold myself accountable. It worked well and so I will do it again this year and will update this post for every new story. This tally will be very basic, listing just the date, title, word count, genre, series, if any, and maybe a one or two sentence summary/comment.

Most of these stories will become longer in editing. Many will eventually change their titles and some may never see the light of day at all.

If you want to follow along with the challenge, bookmark this post. And if you want to play along or cheer me on, feel free to do so in the comments.

And now, let’s take a look at the stories:

July 1, 2020: Recruitment, military science fiction, 4778 words

Craig Hammer is a frustrated military science fiction writer. One day, he sees an advertisement for the International Independent Military Science Fiction Writers Guild, IIMSFWG for short. He joins up and finds friends. But the Guild is not what it seems.

This one started out as a parody inspired by a discussion on Camestros Felapton’s blog about yet another would-be SFWA alternative. Eventually, it turned into a more serious science fiction story. There’s even a sweet romance in here.

July 2, 2020: Jamaica Jerk Chicken (The Culinary Assassin), crime fiction, 1178 words

The Culinary Assassin is a series of flash stories about an assassin who kills people in restaurant – after first sampling the food. I wrote the first one to practice my description writing skills and then they sort of piled up. I should really publish a collection of these some time, since I have quite a few of them by now.

In this story, the world’s only gourmet hitperson eats Caribbean food and shoots a drug dealer. Inspired by having jerk chicken for lunch.

July 3, 2020: The Hand from the Deep (Thurvok), sword and sorcery, 3923 words

Thurvok and his friends liberate a village that is beleaguered by a monster that lives at the bottom of a lake.

Inspired by a favoured hiking spot and a book about mythological creatures.

July 4, 2020: Stark’s Diner (The Culinary Assassin), crime fiction, 1309 words

The world’s only gourmet hitperson eats an ice cream sundae and shoots a mobster in a diner in New Jersey.

The inspiration for this story was that I recently ran across yet another discussion about the controversial final scene of The Sopranos, where Tony Soprano gets killed – or not, whatever the case may be – to the sound of “Don’t stop believin'” by Journey. As I came across the umpteenth dissection of the ending, I suddenly remembered that the scene in question takes place in a diner. And I thought, “Wait a minute, so Tony Soprano was killed – if that’s what happened – in a diner. It’s obvious who done it. It was the culinary assassin.”

And that’s how this story was born, though I changed the name of the victim and the diner.

July 5, 2020: The City of the Screaming Pillars (Thurvok), sword and sorcery, 5209 words

Thurvok, Meldom, Sharenna and Lysha travel to Candalor, an abandoned town in the middle of the desert known as “The City of the Screaming Pillars”. They are looking for a legendary treasure of rubies big as eyeballs.  But once they there, they have to deal not only with the screaming pillars, but also with the unholy gods of Cadalor.

The initial inspiration for this one was the cover of the March 1965 issue of Fantastic Stories of Imagination, which caught my eye when it was reviewed at Galactic Journey some time ago. The cover illustrates a Brak the Barbarian story by John Jakes – yes, the North and South guy. Before he wrote Civil War family sagas, he used to write sword and sorcery.

Somewhere along the fairly straightforward desert quest, the story took a turn into Lovecraftian territory.

The City of the Screaming Pillars is also the longest story I’ve written during the challenge to date and now I’m tired.

July 6, 2020: The Nightlife of Statues, contemporary fantasy, 1599 words

What it says on the tin. Several statues come to life by night and discuss current events.

Inspired by the recent debates about removing statues that are no longer politicall desired.

July 7, 2020: A Grave Case (Helen Shepherd Mysteries), crime fiction, 7467 words

When a wave of muggings at Kensal Green cemetery leaves one victim dead, Helen and her team are called in to apprehend the cemetery bandit.

This one was inspired by a report about thefts and robberies on cemeteries. It’s also the longest July short story challenge to date, though the first draft wouldn’t quite cross the novelette line.

July 8, 2020: The Golden Deer Inn (The Culinary Assassin), crime fiction, 1638 words

The world’s only gourmet hitperson visits Alsace, eats Flammkuchen, drinks Edelzwicker,  and shoots a far right politician.

The inspiration for this story was an article on “How to make the perfect Flammekueche” (“Flammekueche” is Alsatian dialect, “Flammkuchen” regular German) on the Guardian website. I saw the article and my first thought was, “I really need to make Flammkuchen sometime.” My second thought was, “Maybe the culinary assassin would like to have some Flammkuchen.”

And even though you can get Flammkuchen all over Germany these days (not sure about France), I nonetheless sent the culinary assassin to Alsace, because my great-grandfather hails from there and I still have family there.

July 9, 2020: Attack of the Robot Turkeys, science fiction, 1235 words

Robot turkey beleaguer a small town. What is says on the tin, basically.

The inspiration for this one was an episode of the new Magnum PI of all things, where Magnum muses about the meaning of the name of a yacht and finally says, “Maybe the initials stand for ‘robot turkeys’.” Magnum and Higgins are then interrupted by a pirate attack and the robot turkeys are never mentioned again. But somehow they stuck in my head and so I wrote a story about literal robot turkeys.

July 10, 2020: The Hanging Tree, historical fiction, 3454 words

During the Thirty Years War, teenaged Elsa and her little brother Jan escape the besieged town of Weißenburg. They hide from the Imperial army under General Wallenstein, witness a mass execution (well, Elsa does) and meet Adam, a young deserter from the Imperial army.  Together, Elsa, Jan and Adam try to find a safe place for them all.

The inspiration for this story was a piece of concept art for what I think is a videogame.  In this image, a girl and a young boy are hiding behind a dead horse, while there is a mass hanging going on in the background. The image reminded me of the famous etching “The Hanging” from the “Great Miseries of War” series of etchings by French (sort of, since he was from Lorraine, which has been disputed territory between Germany and France for centuries), which depicts a mass hanging during the Thirty Years War.

This story will probably need more historical background, for while the Thirty Years War, one of the bloodiest in the history of Europe, looms large in German memory, to the point that if you mention Wallenstein, religious conflicts, the horrors of war and a mass hanging reminiscent of an etching that is in every second history textbook people will get what you mean. However, the Thirty Years War not nearly as well known outside continental Europe, so I’m not sure if people elsewhere will get it.

July 11, 2020: Little Monsters, science fiction, 1022 words

One day Lana finds a small, tennis-ball-sized monster on the lawn. She takes it home, puts it in a box and generally treats it like a pet. What Lana is not know that the monster, whose name is Roznikath, is actually an advance scout of the invasion fleet of the alien Zostorug…

This is a humorous science fiction story and also the shortest one to date. It was inspird by my current craft project, which involves crocheting little monsters for CoNZealand’s yarnbomb project.

July 12, 2020: Cake Invaders, science fiction, 2193 words

All over the world, foodstuffs, common household objects and eventually people are revealed to be really made of cake. Bob Foster and Dr. Dana Milburn of the US Anti-Alien Taskforce believe that the proliferation of secret cakes may be the vanguard of an alien invasion. They will be proven right.

This story was inspired by the videos of cakes disguised as other foodstuffs or common household objects that are all over social media right now. Initially, it started out as a humorous and somewhat absurd story, but then it took a turn into paranoid X-Files territory.

Certainly one of the weirder stories I’ve written for this challenge.

July 13, 2020: Kitchen Demon, urban fantasy, 1881 words

Isabella tries to make her grandmother’s famous recipe for spaghetti sauce and winds up summoning a demon instead. She also gets some unexpected revelations about her grandmother…

I’m not sure where this one came from. There was no clear inspiration, though I do like to write about cooking and food.

July 14, 2020: Flamingos, post-apocalyptic, 1610 words

Two flamingos, Diego and Pablo, recall the day when one of the great steel birds that often fly high above the lagoon where they live (we call them planes) suddenly fell from the sky and turned the lagoon into a flaming inferno. Around the same time, the creatures that the flamingos call the thick-legs (we call them humans) as well as the great steel beasts and the waterbeasts that live in symbiosis with them (cars and boats to us) just vanished. Clearly, something terrible has happened, but what?

The July Short Story Challenge usually yields a handful of post-apocalyptic stories every year – several of them may be found in the collection After the End – Stories of Life After the Apocalypse. But for obvious reasons, I really don’t feel like reading or writing post-apocalyptic fiction right now. So I’m surprised that I wrote one after all. Though it’s notable that “Flamingos” is written from the point of view of animals who were left unaffected by whatever befell the humans. Diego and Pablo never find out what happened to the humans either.

The inspiration for this was an image of a flock of flamingos surrounding the gutted hull of a crashed plane. A secondary inspiration might have been this featured new release at the Speculative Fiction Showcase, a post-apocalyptic novel from the POV of chickens.

July 15, 2020: King’s Justice, sword and sorcery, 7178 words

Kurval has taken over the throne of Azakoria, after slaying the previous king Orkol in battle. He is determined to be a good and just king, but the people of Azakoria don’t respect him and view him as a barbarian outsider. Kurval also has to deal with various aristocrats plotting to depose him as well as a steady stream of executions of would-be conspirators.

One day, during an audience, a hooded petitioner draws a knife and tries to stab Kurval. Kurval easily disarms the would-be assassin. But when the hood is pulled off, Kurval is shocked to see that the assassin is a young woman, Nelaira, daughter of a minor noble.

Kurval decides to visit Nelaira in her prison cell, because he wants to know why she tried to kill him. And even though reason of state demands that Nelaira be executed for her crime, Kurval finds that he does not want to hang her…

This is a sword and sorcery tale, though not part of the Thurvok series. It’s also quite different, though still part of the same genre. The Thurvok stories set on the lighter end of the sword and sorcery spectrum, in spite of plenty of monsters, skeletons and resurrected corpses, and closer to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser (though there are plenty of dark Leiber stories as well) than to Conan and Jirel of Joiry. “King’s Justice” is more Robert E. Howard, particularly the Kull stories and The Hour of the Dragon/Conan the Conqueror. Though the ending is happier than what Howard would have written.

I’ve been tinkering with this one for the past few days, because it wouldn’t quite come together, but I’m happy with how it turned out in the end. Not sure whether I’ll publish this under my own name or under Richard Blakemore’s. Probably Richard’s, since he has a sword and sorcery backlist.

The inspiration for this one were two pieces of artwork, an image of a hooded assassin confronting a king on his throne for which I can’t find a link right now, as well as Rene Magritte’s 1928 painting “The Lovers II”, in which a hooded couple shares a passionate kiss.

July 16, 2020: Taco Truck (The Culinary Assassin), crime fiction, 864 words

The world’s only gourmet hitperson eats a fish taco and shoots a drug kingpin.

I was going to write something else today. But then I was massively busy with Worldcon related stuff and other things, so I shelved today’s idea for tomorrow and wrote a quick Culinary Assassin tale.

July 17, 2020: The Lantern Bearers (Thurvok), sword and sorcery, 2262 words

Thurvok, Meldom, Sharenna and Lysha are forced to cross the Gravendare Marshes by night, when the inn where they’d planned to spend the night turns out to be den of bandits. But the marshes have their own share of danger, such as the mysterious ghost lights and the hooded lantern bearers luring travellers to their doom…

The initial inspiration for this story was this Crime Reads article by Elly Griffiths about folklore connected to marshlands and how stories about will o’ the wisps and similar ghostly lights can be found all over the world. Somehow, it intermingled with the plot of The Spessart Inn, which also features a sinister inn that is a den of robbers, to beget this story.

July 18, 2020: Vacancy, post-apocalyptic, 2048 words

Daniel is a scavenger in the flooded Florida of the near future. One day, during a scavenging expedition, Daniel is separated from his friends Luis and Alanna during an alligator attack. Daniel manages to get away, but he is all alone, lost, out of ammunition and almost out of water. But then he spots a motel sign among the swamp vegetation…

I originally planned to write something else today, but that story just wouldn’t come together. So I went through my collection of images to see if something sparked an idea. Eventually, this one did…

July 19, 2020: The Tomb in the Swamp, fantasy, 762 words

In the middle of a vast and treacherous swamp, there lies the tomb of an ancient king. This is its story…

This one is very short, more vignette than story, but then it was that kind of day. Very short pieces about fantastic places occasionally crop up during the July Short Story Challenge. Eventually I should collect those in An Atlas of Fantastic Places or something like that. Or use them as seeds for future stories.

The inspiration for this story was this piece of fantasy art by Nele Diehl.

July 20, 2020: The Cow Thief, historical fantasy, 1284 words

Sigurd the Giant is thirsty and decides to buy himself a cow, so he’ll always have fresh milk. So he comes down from his mountain to the village of Flintskilde to buy a cow.

The people of Flintskilde may be Vikings, but nonetheless they’re not at all pleased when the giant who has been the bane of their village for years now comes stomping down from his mountain to bother them yet again…

Another very short story that was not at all what I had planned to write (I will finish that story eventually), but then the 2020 Hugo finalists have found themselves roped into fixing issues with Worldcon programming.

The inspiration for this story was this delightful piece of fantasy art by Ismail Inceoglu.

July 21, 2020: Neutral Ground (In Love and War), space opera/military science fiction, 4996 words

Colonel Brian Mayhew of the Republican Special Commando Forces and his Imperial counterpart General Roderick Crawford meet in a street café on the neutral world of Ibsen II for coffee and pastries and to discuss the most embarrassing matter of Anjali and Mikhail.

There was no concrete inspiration for this one, just a scene that popped into my head of Brian Mayhew and his Imperial counterpart sitting in a street café, talking and realising that even though they’re on opposite sides of the war, they’re actually quite alike.

This is another fairly quiet In Love and War story. During rewrites, I should probably enliven it by having Mayhew and Crawford’s little tete a tete interrupted by an assassin or something.

Still, it’s a nice character piece and I’m happy with how it turned out.

July 22, 2020: The Gate of Mist, sword and sorcery, 1773 words

On the slopes of the mountain Kuhinua sits the monastery of the Order of the Guardians of the Gate, warrior monks who protect the world against dangers from beyond. One day, young Tarkhali shows up at the gate of the monastery, wanting to join the order.

Tarkhali is taken in and given swordfighting training. He also finds a friend in his combat trainer Jengamal. Then comes the day when Tarkhali is finally sent up to the top of the mountain to guard the gate to beyond against the mist creatures trying to break through. And of course, Jengamal is by his side…

This one started out as a story about warrior monks fighting monsters and turned into Brokeback Mountain, but with cloud monsters, halfway through.

The inspiration was this piece of fantasy art by Nele Diehl.

July 23, 2020: The Guardians of the Forest, fantasy, 1056 words

In a glade at the heart of the vast Conegont forest, there are two statues, a man and a woman.  Once, they were a pair of doomed lovers on the run, now they are the guardians of the forest…

This is another very short story about a fantastic place and its background. I should really collect these some day.

The inspiration was another piece of fantasy art by Nele Diehl, namely this one.

July 24, 2020: Conscientious Objector, dystopian, 2459 words

In the future. the State has ended all discord and strife and united humanity – by making dissent and any deviation from the norm a crime punishable by death. Furthermore, any citizen may be called upon the serve as a citizen executioner.

One morning, Joseph Karlsbad receives a letter summoning him to citizen executioner duty. Joseph hates executioner duty, but he has no choice but to comply. Or does he?

This is the grimmest tale to come out of the 2020 July Short Story Challenge yet, though in general it seems to me as if this year’s stories are darker and grimmer. Geez, I wonder why that might be.

The inspiration for this story was a mix of several different factors. One was Rosemary Benton’s review of the 1965 science fiction novel Android Avenger by Ted White, which is set in a very similar dystopian society, complete with citizen executioners. The novel only uses the executioner duty idea as a jumping off point for a story about an android who doesn’t know he’s an android, but somehow the idea stuck in my head. It combined with this illustration from a 1937 issue of Spicy Mystery, which perfectly illustrates the curious and often disturbing mix of sex and violence found at the more risqué end of the pulp spectrum, and the trailer for a historical crime drama called The Alienist: Angel of Darkness, in which a young women is strapped into an electric chair, while a horrified Daniel Brühl, Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans look on. A little bit of Franz Kafka got mixed in as well and this is the result.

July 25, 2020: Willowbrook Farm (The Day the Saucers Came), alien invasion, 2569 words

It’s June 9th, 1956, known throughout the world as the day the saucers came. It’s also the day that Bob and Mary Graham are about to be evicted from their farm. But while an alien invasion cannot save their farm, it at least deals with the greedy banker Mr. Marsden and his goons as well as with the ineffective sheriff.

This one is basically: The couple from American Gothic meets a flying saucer.

July 26, 2020: My Hollywood Life: Confessions of a Dinosaur Actress, science fiction, 1400 words

In a candid interview, Myfanwy Krxxzplx, a pterodactyl and one of the premier dinosaur actors of Hollywood, talks about her lengthy career, which ranges from the silent era all the way to the modern CGI age, her friendship with Kong (yes, that Kong), her uncredited appearance in Citizen Kane, her hope to appear in a Marvel movie and her frustration at the lack of Oscar nominations for dinosaur, kaiju and cryptozoological actors.

The inspiration for this story was watching Kong: Skull Island on TV (about which I should probably write a review after Worldcon, because it was much better than I expected). In one scene, there are a number of pterodactyls, because there have always been pterodactyls on Skull Island, going back all the way to the original 1933 King Kong. Just as any movie or TV show that features dinosaurs inevitably has a pterodactyl. So I thought, “What if that pterodactyl is actually always the same pterodactyl? What stories would that actor or actress have to tell?”

I named my pterodactyl diva Myfanwy Krxxzplx, because Krxxzplx sounds like the sort of name a pterodactyl might have and Myfanwy, because the pterodactyl who appears in the British TV show Torchwood was supposedly nicknamed Myfanwy by the cast and crew.

And yes, there really are pterodactyls in Citizen Kane.

July 27, 2020: Ambush (In Love and War), space opera, 1933 words

On his way home from his shift at the spacedocks of Zhen Kang, where he’s working security, Mikhail is ambushed by bounty hunters.

The inspiration for this story was this image by Sebastian Hue of a man in a long coat under attack in a dark alley. When I saw the image, I immediately thought of Mikhail.

This story is very short and I may eventually use it as a starting point for a longer tale.

July 28, 2020: The House at Green Corner, urban fantasy, 2133 words

While delivering newspapers on her summer holidays, Maddie always passes a mysterious house with an overgrown garden. Bats often flutter around the garden.

No one in the neighbourhood knows anything about the house or its inhabitant. But one day, Maddie decides to venture into the garden on a dare and finds that the truth about the house  at Green Corner is stranger than even the wildest of speculations.

The inspiration for this story is a real house in my neighbourhood with an overgrown garden and a very tall fence, which is popular with the local bats. I walk past that house often and found myself wondering who lives there and why the house looks like it does.

Worldcon has officially started and I will be on my first panel in a few hours. I will see, if I can get in a flash story tomorrow or in the remaining July days, but if I don’t make it, I will end the challenge here at 28 days.

July 29, 2020: The Doorway to Nowhere, fantasy, 358 words

At the heart of the Berengar forest, there stands a ruin with a doorway. Strange things happen there and occasionally, travellers vanish…

Yes, I did finish a story today after all, though it’s very short, more vignette than short story. It’s another one of those Atlas of Fantastic Places stories and was inspired by this piece of fantasy art by Nele Diehl.

But even if today’s story was very short, I’m still happy that I managed to write one at all, especially since I’ve decided to view any story written during Worldcon as a bonus.

July 30, 2020: Impartial Observer, horror, 730 words

An anthropologist observes a demon summoning ritual in the woods. This turns out to be a very bad idea…

Yes, I did get another story written, though it is yet another flash piece. I will try to do one tomorrow, too, if only because giving up now will feel like cheating. However, tomorrow is Hugo night, so I’m not sure how much time I will have.

BTW, the Hugos will be livestreamed, so cheer me on.

July 31, 2020: The Timekeeper, post-apocalyptic, 1002 words

The timekeeper, an artefact from the time before, has been in Ella’s family for more than three generations. But one day, it breaks down…

The inspiration for this story was a clock radio I bought at my local Aldi today. The manual states that the date function of the clock radio will cease working on December 31, 2999, since it can’t handle the Y3K version of the millennium bug. When we read this, we laughed and said, “Well, that’s the problem that our descendants in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the year 3000 will have to deal with.”

That sparked a story about a family in a post-apocalyptic world whose most prized possession, a clock radio from the time before, suddenly stops working.

And that’s it: 31 stories in 31 days, including the last three of them written during Worldcon.

I might try for another tomorrow, because I had an idea for a story I didn’t get around to in the crazy Worldcon days, but otherwise that’s it for the 2020 July Short Story Challenge.

The postmortem post will go up in the couple of days, probably after my Hugo commentary.

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