the mystery hotel

Shane Nickerson's Mystery HotelShane posted this picture of a mystery hotel in his blog over the weekend, and I suggested to him that it would be cool to have writers post short stories that it inspires.

I’ll be honest: I’m terrified right now, before I hit publish and send this out into the wild. I’m not the best in the world at brevity, and whenever I attempt fiction, I feel incredibly self conscious.

I also made the mistake of reading Otis’ story after I wrote mine, and I feel (like I often do when I read Otis’ writing) like a kid who belongs at the card table, pretending to sit down in the dining room with the adults.

So now that I’ve managed to lower your expectations to UPN-like standards, please enjoy. . .

Room 302

by Wil

Farnsworth frowned as he shuffled the photos. He dropped them on his desk and looked over the top of his reading glasses.

"I can’t use any of these, son. I can hardly see the men, and there’s too much whitespace in here." He picked up one photo and pointed at the tin ceiling. Martin recalled how brightly it had reflected the flash, and how the younger man had flinched in the light. 

"Mr. Farnsworth –"

"Look, you’re a good kid, and even if your photos aren’t always front page material, you rarely let me down."

"Thank you, sir."

"I know that you have a baby on the way, but I can’t pay you for photos that I can’t use." He leaned back in his chair and folded his hands across his chest. "Hotels don’t stay in one family and celebrate their hundredth anniversary every day, though, so it’s news that I need to run. So why don’t you go back to the hotel, get a closer shot of the Ellisons, and I’ll pay you double for it." Farnsworth smiled, and put the photos into an envelope.

"I’ll see what I can do, sir. Thank you." Martin took the envelope and traded the quiet of Farnsworth’s office for the chaos of the newsroom.

Martin needed the money, and it was important to keep a man like Richard Farnsworth happy. Evelyn was due in two months, and these freelance newspaper jobs were all he had.

But he wasn’t going back into the Ellison, today or ever. There was something very, very wrong there, and Martin felt it in his soul when he walked up the stairs into the second floor lobby. Those men were terrified, and Martin wanted to get out of there before he found out why.

He took the number five bus home, and left the envelope on the seat when he got off. The sooner he could get way from it, the sooner he could begin the long process of wiping that feeling from his memory. He hugged his wife tightly when he walked into their apartment and felt his unborn son stir between them.

Back at the Ellison Hotel, the tenant in 302 woke and rang the front desk. Father and son looked at each other.

It was time to eat.

83 thoughts on “the mystery hotel”

  1. Wow, Wil. I really liked the story. I read it, looked at the picture closer, then read it again. Its really good! Hope to see more fiction on here in the future!

  2. Too kind, Wil. Too kind. Thing is…now that I’ve read your version, I want to go back and spend eight hours re-writing mine so it doesn’t seem so hackish. Regardless, thanks for the inspiration–on this subject and many others.

  3. A Fine Year For Business

    Wil Wheaton posted about a short story thing happening at Nickerblog. The idea is to write a story about the mystery hotel pictured above in less than 300 words. My story, ingoring my title and credit line, is 299 words. I was motivated by the date of the

  4. Wil:
    I liked your story. It reminded me of the literary postcard competition that I entered earlier this year with geist magazine ( – winners will be published in a few weeks if anyone is interested in giving them a read).
    I liked your subtleness, and the vividness at the same time.
    Keep writing!
    Patricia from Canada

  5. Thanks for sharing this Wil. I took to the idea right away and wrote something before reading what others had so I could flesh out my vision of the image. I really enjoyed doing it. Thanks again.
    I love your vision of the image.
    I like how your vision of the image and Otis’ vision of the image fit together so well, even though you wrote your story before you read his. It’s almost spooky.

  6. Good stuff. I’m no writer, but a thought. With very short stories you need to set the image in that first sentence. It took me a moment to realize the age gap, the context. As a non-writer, I’ll mangle this, but something like:
    “The rough lines crinkled in the corner of Farnsworth’s eyes as he looked over the photos. Out of habit, he swiftly ran his hand through his slowly graying hair before looking up over his desk at the young man waiting expectantly.”
    A few descriptive words stablish the age gap, the power gap, and the emotional context for the scene.
    I feel stupid, giving advice to an establish writer…

  7. The obvious bond your short story creates between the reader and Martin, proves that it delivers an organic emotion that’s easily compatible with the imaginations of the readers.
    The appetizer was good, when is the meal coming?? Waiter!

  8. Thanks for the feedback and constructive criticism, everyone.
    I am especially thrilled that the Lovecraftian elements made it through, because that creepiness is *exactly* what I was going for.

  9. I don’t want to pigeonhole you with more comparisons, but it reminds me of both S. King’s short work, and Orson Scott Card’s _The Changed Man_ collection (there’s some creepy crap in there!). Regardless of similarities to other writers, it is very good. It feels like the beginning of a very good story.

  10. Chris Kessel: I think Wil’s version is right on target. The age gap comes out nicely in the second paragraph, and the “reading glasses” reference in the first is an extra clue to the careful reader.
    This isn’t the story I would have written from the picture, but it’s a good one.

  11. Beautifully brief, and yet you managed to set the mood dead-on. I really want to know now what those men were terrified of…or do I? =D I’ve always admired those who could tell a story with a few deft sentences, so mad props to you, Wil.
    I’d write something, but I’m afraid now it will fall into the same vein, and appear woefully inept in comparision. *will make an attempt later on, maybe*

  12. Erm, dude…
    You’re going to keep writing on that, right? You’ve got the beginnings of a nice short story there, perhaps even a novel.
    BTW: For a guy whose wife hasn’t given birth during their marriage, I thought you captured that moment between (ha ha) Martin and his wife beautifully. Nice!

  13. Awww, come on, are you just gonna leave us hangin’ like that? I don’t care about the 300 words or less rule, I want to read more about Martin and whether or not Mr. Farnsworth ever cuts him any slack.
    That’s how good you are, Wil. I can’t speak for anyone else, but you keep me yearning for more. Your credibility as a fiction writer is every bit as good as your non-fiction work.
    In those 299 words, you managed to paint a picture of a man who so desperately wants to succeed at his work in order to support his family. If only he could get that one picture published that would get old man Farnsworth off of his case, he wouldn’t need to worry about the bills, for this month at least. It would be like a five thousand pound weight being lifted off of his shoulders, if he could only get that one good shot. I already care about Martin and Evelyn and what happens to them and their unborn child. And I’d also like to know what’s happening in Room 302, and why Martin is so reluctant to return to that room to get the picture of the Ellisons that could pay the rent this month.
    Can we possibly add “Screenwriter” to your already impressive resume anytime soon?
    Good job, Wil. I loved your story. But I still want more, damn you!!

  14. Ohh… I like this.
    It reminds me of a short story I read about a little old lady at a bed and breakfast that kills and taxidermies all her guests. The last thing the narrator does is enjoy his ‘almond’ tea and biscuits.

  15. Loved it! The picture with those words made it all that much more amazing.
    Not sure if it was intentional, but I loved the nod to one of my favorite writers, Harlan Ellison.

  16. The whole time I was imagining it as the “Angel Investigations” hotel from “Angel”.
    Until I actually looked at the picture, that is.

  17. I love that you used the name of the late Richard Farnsworth, he is one of my favourite actors. As a result, the image I’m conjuring for the fictional Farnsworth is of the real Richard Farnsworth, and it actually fits quite well.
    Nice story, Wil.

  18. Please keep it up Wil, whatever story comes to you. And please be gentle with yourself. I think you know having the doubt to help you stay true and real is what makes for good writing.
    Count me in too. I’d like to see more about … moohahaha … 302.
    Given the cross-inspiration of writers, you might like this:
    The John Irving interviews are terrific. And accept for the great short story “The Red Queen’s Race”, I haven’t read Asimov yet really–but he’s in that catalogue too.

  19. D’you mind if we post our own little snippets of creativity here, Wil? Wasn’t sure whether you wanted that or just comments or links or what.
    Mine’s probably no good anyway, and I didn’t want to steal your thunder or anything… Just asking. :)

  20. …and here I thought the one-random-chapter-of-fiction thing was a unique idea. I should have known better, I know.
    I did the same thing on my blog a while back. I’m a novice at writing and blogging and it’s, well…not good, so I was surprised and excited to see that someone I respect as a writer thought it was a good idea too!
    Hopefully this isn’t a breach of blogging eetiquette…

  21. Dude,
    You’re really too hard on yourself. That was excellent. Contrary to the other posters I hope you don’t expand on it, as it’s a perfect ‘moment of time’. It’s just own humble opinion, but you should really spend some time on that whole fiction thing.
    As an aside, thanks for the e-mail back last week. My wife always seems to look at me as something ‘cooler’ then I am if she ever sees Wil Wheaton has e-mailed me. I hope Ryan did good over the weekend.

  22. Hey Wil,
    That was very good. I’m speaking as a reader here – I think both fellow writer and reader oriented feedback is important in different ways so just thought you should know the perspective I’m coming from.
    The one thing that did give me a problem was the opening paragraph. It felt a bit artificial and if it hadn’t been you or someone with similar standing in my mind I might well have stoped reading at that point.
    I understand that in a short story you need to establish the characters in the scene etc very quickly but I think the way it was done here equates to to the film “rule” of ‘Show, Dont Tell’. It feels like you are starting off by breaking down the 4th wall and talking directly to the audience to accomplish that establishment rather than having the story do it in a more inherent fashion. To see what I mean by the nebulous statement “more inherent” I’ve included my alternate opening below:
    Farnsworth frowned as he shuffled the photos. He dropped them on his desk and looked over the top of his reading glasses.
    ‘”I can’t use any of these, son.” He frowned over his reading glasses, shuffling the next photo to the top of the stack. “I can hardly see the men, and there’s too much whitespace in here.” He continued, pointing at the tin ceiling.
    Martin recalled how brightly it had reflected the flash, and how the younger man had flinched in the light…’
    It still gets the info in there but more embedded in the flow of the story.
    The rest of the piece just got better and better as it went along. Good work mate.

  23. Ideas come, ideas go. Sometimes they come back

    As I read Wil Wheatons post the mystery hotel, I am reminded of an idea that I had a while ago for a writing project with the kids.
    The Images Canada site has thousands of archive photos of various places across Canada. My thought was to have t…

  24. There was a question on the Flickr page about this, regarding the sign in the b.g., which read “Due to the HOL…”
    From what I have gathered, it basically means they jacked the rates up due to the holiday. Noting that it is also August 2nd, 1920 by the calendar marking, the only holidays I could locate are Civic Holidays for Canada, and Ice Cream Soda/Ice Cream Sandwich Day as well. Go fig.
    I’d like to take a crack at this too. Lemme see what I can crank out.

  25. Fracking Hawesome! So what if you’re not quite as good as some other guy, it was still incredibly intreguing. You probably also see it from the artists perspective, which is notorious for being either abnormally good or abnormally bad…
    Just getting ideas out of your head and on paper is an awesome feeling. If you can retain enough interest in writing something chances are other people will too.
    So more I say MORE!!
    Oooh, maybe you could do some kind of podcast radiodrama… like oldtimey radiodramas… but newpodcasty…

  26. Maybe you too can help solve a mystery.

    Wil “WHAT DO YOU MEAN HE HAS FOUR OF A KIND” Wheaton has started something rolling between his weblog and a buddies of his that I think is really neat. Shane Nickerson found an old black & white picture of a hotel lobby at a flea market, and just rec…

  27. Come on folks. That’s the point of the exercise, *we* write the rest of it in *our* heads.
    It’s a fabulous beginning that can go in half a dozen directions at the mere first glance. Sure he could go on and it would be just as great but that’s the *easy* way.
    Open that door in your mind and start walking down that dark, haunting hallway with the eerie sounds. See what happens. But remember, don’t look behind you, you don’t want to know what’s following …

  28. Wil,
    Not that you were asking for feedback, and its not like I was willing to put myself out there, so feel free to ignore.
    I like everything you wrote except for two lines that really stuck out for me.
    “and Martin felt it in his soul when he walked up the stairs into the second floor lobby.”
    There’s just something too…explicit in this.
    “…begin the long process of wiping that feeling
    Another stumbling point. I’m only saying this because I really liked everything else, but these two sentences were like speed bumps, jarring me out of the story.
    Maybe something simpler such as “the sooner he could pour himself a drink. The first of many”
    Suggests a bit more depth to Martin, how he deals with stress etc. Just my $.02 before my first cup of coffee.

  29. Very Twilight Zone. I love it! I hope you write more without the disclaimers at the beginning. You’re a very descriptive and engaging writer. Don’t sell yourself short. This story pulled me in and made me want to yell MORE! when it ended. Great work :)

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