The Short & Short Of It

Short stories.

Have always loved reading them. They feel more like munching on chips and salsa than taking part in a full course dinner that is the reading of a novel.

But, man, are short stories difficult to write well. I so admire writers that can transport you in a single sitting that a short tale offers you.

I have a short story collection coming out in a couple of weeks called My Eye On Home. Since this is a blog on writing I thought I’d give you a preview of the collection via the Afterwards of the book which talks a little about the writing of each story. Even though you haven’t read the stories (and I hope you will) it’s sometimes fun to take a peek behind the curtains, or to try to answer that unanswerable question, where do you get your ideas…

These stories span almost twenty years. The first one was written in 1991 (Widowers) and the last one in 2010 (Kindred Spirits). Widowers, Freefall and My Eye On Home have been published. For those interested in writerly stats and such, Widowers received eighteen rejections before being purchased. My Eye On Home inspired a reader of the magazine it was published in to ask permission to adapt it for the stage, which was wonderfully gratifying. And Freefall morphed from a non-fiction piece into a short story.

Short stories are fun to write. They’re also a beast to do well. I was spoon fed on the stories of Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, some Faulkner, Twain and Hawthorne. Stories require an exactness, a capturing, if you will, of a moment exploded in time. Novels give you leeway to travel down some rabbit trails (as long as their interesting trails). Short stories do not. Yet they still have to have a beginning, middle and end. They still have to etch real people into your hearts and minds and they still must do what all writing is supposed to do; transport you out of the here and now into the what if.

Freefall. If truth be told was inspired by two things. One was ‘Breathing Method,’ a novella in Stephen King’s collection Different Seasons. In his tale, a group of older men tell almost supernatural tales in an old English drawing room. It’s a story within a story. I loved how he played with an almost British literature sensibility and I loved the camaraderie of the men and the club itself as much as the tale told. But I wanted my setting to be more contemporary as well as the chance to get inside the heads of WWII vets, which was the second inspiration. I’d just connected with a member of my father’s WWII B-17 crew and we instantly hit it off, developing a wonderful friendship over the last three years of his life. In part this story is dedicated to him.

Man of the City. Walking through a rare snowy day in the Pacific Northwest near Christmas, I got to thinking what it might be like to encounter Charles Dickens near the end of his life. What would he be like? What would he say? What concerns or observations would he have? I finished my walk as the snow cast a serene setting and wrote the bulk of the story that evening.

Kindred Spirits. This is an ode to my dog. Actually to two dogs I’ve owned. One growing up and one I currently have. Dogs have played an important role in my life and it seems like the hardest times I’ve had to endure have been with a furry faithful companion at my side. The story is also an homage to the Bradbury story, The Emissary.

My Eye On Home. I had just seen Ken Burn’s The Civil War for the second time through and was taken with David McCullough’s descriptions of the young soldiers memories of home. I decided I wanted to explore that world and found myself falling in the love with the main character. Even though I knew he was doomed, I was taken with his courage, sensitivity and faith. It really is true that sometimes stories write themselves. I wish I had known Will. I would like to have met him.

Widowers. This story’s first seeds were planted on a day trip to Crater Lake in my home state of Oregon. For those of you that don’t know, Crater Lake is a majestic and breathtaking body of water formed when a volcano pushed upward in a massive eruption thousands of years ago. The resulting lake is perhaps the deepest in the United States at nearly 2000 feet. I was there one day and saw a small boat making a trek out to the Wizard Island, a tiny atoll in the middle of the lake. I got to thinking, what would happen if during this pleasant sunny day, with just a handful of tourist and rangers, a great Plesiosaur rose out from the depths just feet from that tiny boat. What kind of impact would that have?

As often happens, I didn’t get to the keyboard right away. The story percolated for a while. Years actually and it changed and developed into its current form. I always really liked the story but couldn’t seem to get anyone to bite on it. Finally, after seven years and eighteen rejections, an editor from American Airlines Magazine (who were still publishing fiction in the late nineties, God bless ’em) called me and said they’d love to purchase the story. Not only that but it was more money than I’d ever seen for a story and they put an outstanding illustration with it as well.

Sometimes stories need time to find where they’re supposed to live.

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