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Writing Challenge is a writer’s first foray into fiction

The real story behind the photo: Editor Cindy Pierce snapped this photo of the old door with a letter slot as she strolled the streets of Charleston, SC, while there for a wedding in April 2021.

When he retired from the securities industry 30 years ago and moved from Chicago to Naples, Charles Guptill began writing letters to family and friends about his new life in the Sunshine State. .

He still likes to write letters.

“But, of course, the letters are not fiction,” he says.

As the son of a foreign correspondent whose reporting assignments often moved the family and to cities such as Buenos Aires, Rome and Mexico City, nonfiction came naturally to Mr. Guptill. His first attempts at fiction didn’t come until he discovered the Florida Weekly Writing Challenge in 2020, when he was 82 years old.

“The challenge has provided a much-needed distraction during the pandemic,” he says of the contest which provides photo prompts to inspire short stories of up to 750 words. It was born as a distraction from the heat, humidity and threat of hurricanes during the scorching summer days of 2010. It continued that way until April 2020 when we started it early as a distraction from closures, cancellations and social distancing. by COVID-19.

GUPTILL

GUPTILL

Mr Guptill looked forward to the 2021 challenge. When the first photo was posted in August, he said: “I was loaded for the bear! I got to work and found a story that I really liked it.

But then he misread the submission deadline and missed it.

“I was so disappointed in myself,” he says.

He would go on to submit seven stories during the challenge, which ended in late November.

His process was the same for every entry: “I would write the story straight away, usually 1,500 words the first day,” he says. “Then I nibbled, edited and slowly consolidated so that every word counted. I thought about my story as I rode my bike, walked around the neighborhood, folded laundry.

Because of the word limit, he says, “I had to focus on the plot at the expense of character development. My plan now is to flesh out the stories by developing the characters.

He spent about an hour a day working on each entry. “It was like carving into a piece of marble, until the deadline,” he says. After missing the first, he pressed “send” on the keyboard a few hours after every other 5 p.m. deadline.

Writing for Mr. Guptill is one of three loves, the others being watercolor painting and cooking (a love he has managed to incorporate into more than one of his writing challenge entries).

“I married late and retired early, just like Mr. Mom did when we were raising our three daughters, all of whom graduated from Barron Collier High School and the University of Florida,” he says. . “I did all the family cooking for years.”

He always does something for me every day. “I’m a foodie for sure,” he says. A dish that has always resonated with him is caccio e pepe, a simple pasta dish with Romano cheese and black pepper. “It has demonized me since the dawn of time.”

Although he likes to share a meal with his friends and family, Mr. Guptill says he never shares his writing challenge entries with an editor or proofreader.

“I tend to be very introspective as a writer,” he says. “I’m not sharing with anyone until I send it to Florida Weekly.”

Mr. Guptill attended Rice University in Texas and served in the Navy as a destroyer navigator before earning a degree in civil engineering at the University of Texas. He worked for Dean Witter in Chicago before running his own brokerage firm for 15 years. ¦

A pebble for the tombstone

BY CHARLES GUPTILL

The Great Man of Letters was dead.

She heard the news the day before. Then in the morning, after reading the Chicago Tribune obituary, she decided on a last rite.

She straightened up, hailed a taxi and directed the driver to North Astor Street.

In the Italianate building, she could see the letters coming through the wrought iron door of glass and filigree. She opened the door and entered. She crossed the hall and stopped in front of the mail depot.

Memories came back from the afternoon over 40 years ago. He had chatted with her at the food market. “Not the can of tomatoes you’re holding,” he said. “Go for the San Marzanos instead. They are better.

He invited her for a beer in the afternoon. She was skeptical, but Otto’s on Halstead was a place she liked, so she agreed. After Otto’s they went back to his apartment in Astor – a sublet, he told her. He cooked dinner, she brought the tinned tomatoes. They dined on bucatini in a marinara sauce which he infused with a porridge of anchovies, red pepper flakes and white wine. Gorgeous.

She told him that she worked for an insurance company on LaSalle Street. He calls himself a novelist, his first two books acclaimed. Now, while waiting for inspiration to pick up again for his third book, he’s writing short stories. A few days later, she moved in.

He frequently talked to friends over the phone. Once he called her at work. “Go down to Billy Goat’s Tavern. I’m here with Mike Royko. I will present.

She was charmed but had to work on him for an introduction to her mother. They partied and had dinner with his college friends. He joined in the conversation about the Cubs, the market, and Mayor Daley’s setbacks. She worried about his obsession with superstitions, tensed up when he dodged cracks in the sidewalk, or stayed in bed on Friday the 13th because bad things had happened to him on that date in the past. When his self-deprecating friends told tumultuous tales in which their fortunes were turning ever lower, he repeated a cautionary mantra: “When you find yourself in a hole, man, stop digging.

Eventually, the Big Man discovered her talents as a secretary. He asked her to type and send her news. She prepared envelopes for publishers he knew, carefully sticking on return address stickers with her name printed large.

The weeks passed without return. “It had never happened before,” he said. “News checks pay the rent. I’ll call my agent. Are you sure you are using the correct postage? »

“Yes of course.”

“Show me the process.”

“I address the envelopes and place them in the letter slot downstairs.”

“Lunge, what slit?”

“He who marked letters.”

They went down to the hall. She showed him.

“Funny, that never occurred to me. I always posted from the box around the corner. Please use that box in the future.

Soon the responses poured in.

“Not for us.”

“Try us next time.”

“Sorry, I just posted a similar story.”

He was sorry.

After the last rejection, a week later, as she came home late from work, the apartment seemed unusually tidy, quiet. In the kitchen, she spotted a folded note on the counter. “I don’t do goodbyes well,” he wrote.

“Yes I understand!” she barked at the ceiling.

The great man of letters then completed his third book in New York. He won the Pulitzer for his fourth. Her marriage to a celebrity ended in acrimony and court battles.

In Chicago, it took him a long time to recover from his sudden departure, the sting still there for decades. She had been painfully young then, she lamented, a naive groupie from Lima, Ohio, thrown on a slag heap. But luckily, she came to terms with the pain, combined it with strong Midwestern instincts, and thrived. I never went all-in again; never dug deeper.

Over the years, she noticed that the Big Man was grafting portions of his young personality onto ingenues populating his books. Not enough for her to point to old friends and ask, “Who does this remind you of?” But she knew he was thinking of her, of her youth, trapped in time.

She walked over to the slot, reached into her Prada shoulder bag, pulled out a soft cloth, shone the flap of the metal letters, smiled at her reflection, stepped back, and let go.

– Read the story of the 2021 Florida Weekly Writing Challenge first place and three honorable mentions in our December 29-30 editions online at www.floridaweekly.com. Of the remaining six stories in our Top 10, David Dorsey’s “Beauteous Flowers” was released on January 19 and Brian Fowler’s “Out of the Closet” was released on February 9. Charles Guptill’s “A Pebble for the Headstone” is the third of six, which will be released over the next few weeks as space permits.

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson