Writing a Short Story

 

In “The Writer” magazine for August, 2016, I found articles about writing short stories. You say, “So what? Short stories can roll right off my computer keyboard in nothing flat.” Maybe so, but think again.

When you write a 200 to 300 page novel, you are very aware of not roaming all over the page with extraneous words, showing-not telling, using active voice more than passive voice, watching out for point-of-view discrepancies, along with the mechanics of good writing—spelling, punctuation, capitalization. It’s no different with writing a short story. The only problem is to make sure your story pulls all the elements together seamlessly in a few pages.

One of the featured writers is Jennifer De Leon. Her advice? Take a universal concept attributed to a population and tone it down to a particular incident. In that one incident, your main character moves the story.

She quotes Sherman Alexie. His short story, What You Pawn, I Will Redeem, centers around a young homeless male Indian who seeks to buy his grandmother’s dancing outfit from a pawnshop owner. The outfit will cost him a thousand dollars. He offered five dollars. The problem is he can’t manage to keep any money. He has a spending fetish. In spite of that, he finally is able to purchase the outfit for the five dollars. He puts it on and dances down the street.

Two characters—one very important, the other a necessary support. One incident—to buy that outfit. One conclusion—outfit purchased and embraced. Time period—twenty-four hours.

My eye moved to the eight emoticons posted below Jennifer’s article. Below were two quotes aimed toward every author who wants to write a short story:

“Find the key emotion; this may be all you need to know to find your short story.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” Edgar Allan Poe

 

 

 

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Zipper–Wannabe Author

How do you type a blog when your pet cat insists on lying on the arm of your chair while you are working on your laptop? His head nuzzles against your left hand—the one that needs to hit the A-S-D-F keys. You push his head out of the way and he pushes right back. After all, he lives in a house where cats rule.

So I thought—“Why not?”– with this challenge, spell-check will get a run for its money, and it might lend some humor to this article.

After resigning myself to this new approach, guess what happened.

Zipper lifted his head and repositioned his whole body, head included, running the length of the arm of the chair.

So there went my whole premise for a humorous blog.

Did he care? Apparently, not because at this moment he is purring noisily—his sign of perfect contentment.

Now what do I do?

I could improvise as if he cooperated with me, but no, it wouldn’t be the same.

I settle instead on recalling how this wannabe author came to live with us, falling under the influence of an established author.

Zipper came to us some years ago when his owner passed on to a newer life. A friend posted on facebook that he was available for adoption. We already had more than one cat, but his story touched me. So I talked Andrea, my daughter, into calling her friend and telling her we would take him. Friend was very grateful.

Zipper lived in Athens, Texas, so we hopped into the car after getting directions, and “zipped” off to Athens.

When we met, Zipper had the run of a large room with not much furniture. We noticed several milk rings scattered on the floor, which we were told, were his favorite playthings.

Good. Simple, available toys that only cost the price of a gallon of milk. Easy, peasy.

We brought a large carrier to ensconce the male cat. But when he realized what was happening, he wanted no part of it. Finally, after chasing him into a closet where he leaped onto a shelf, his then owner braved attacks against his claws and managed to get the upset cat into the carrier. We thanked her, took the cat, and the bag of food she offered, and departed.

Zipper was not a happy camper when he arrived at his new home. But neither were the feline residents he encountered. Time does work miracles and, it wasn’t too long before Zipper settled in, in spite of protests of the other animals.

I’m really sorry my plans for this blog fell apart. It would have been fun to see what kind of “writing” my Zippy could produce. But then, like the elephants and monkeys who “paint” pictures, with their owners selling the masterpieces to a human audience, a piece by Zipper might reach a wider audience than my book, Wind-Free, has. I’m not quite ready to meet that kind of competition.

Maybe in due time, we can make it happen so it’s the best of both worlds—his and mine.

 

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A Friend’s Idea

A few years ago I penned a short story based on Edward Hopper’s famous painting called, “Nighthawks.” Those who read the work liked it.  One friend offered a suggestion for getting maximum benefit from my efforts. Caleb Pirtle III said I should write a short story for each character in the painting. Then combine all those stories into one book. As a “for instance,” Caleb suggested I read “Wineberg, Ohio” written by Sherwood Anderson many years ago. So I ordered the Kindle version and read.

The story revolves around a young man and the experiences he lives out in a small town called–appropriately–Wineberg. He is the thread that is woven throughout, unifying the story as he meets several of the townspeople and interacts with them. Each character brings out a different aspect of the young man’s personality. I couldn’t help but “live” in Wineberg with each chapter.

So I took Caleb’s suggestion seriously, and wrote a short story about one of the people pictured in the painting, whom I called “Mr. Black.” The name was given him by the main character in the original story because of the black clothing he wore.  (“Mr. Black” really has another name, but I haven’t figured out what that name will be.)

I will continue to build stories around the other three characters from the painting. I’m excited about this venture, and think it will be a work I’ll enjoy doing.  There is an audience out there for just such stories. I just hope to do them justice.

From all this, I realize that short stories are more the genre I would like to continue to write, but not give up working on the novels already planned out.

Sometimes a friend’s idea is just the shot in the arm a person needs to rejuvenate their passion.

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I’m Baaaack!

My website was under construction, or rather reconstruction, for a while. My daughter tells me it’s back in working order and now I can blog once more. A lot of my blogs have been going to Venture Galleries over the past several months. Now I have 2 sources. Thank you Nikki and Andrea. Time to get to work.

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Meeting Pierre

Sometimes a friend, or friends, will ask about some event that really changed your life. They don’t want a whole memoir, just one instance. That happened to me this week in a facebook conversation. I know many people feel encouraged to write their memoir as a legacy to leave future family members. I haven’t been so inclined for various reasons, but on the 13th anniversary of his passing, I posted a small piece about my husband on facebook. Two of my former students with whom I’ve been “conversing” with on facebook asked how I met him. Thank you Nancy Bonham and Greg Sites for asking me to share a precious time of my life.

 

One day I visited a priest who had been an associate pastor of our church in Glen Burnie, Maryland, when I was in high school. It was a kind of reunion for we had not corresponded for a long time. During our visit, he asked how things were going for me, and I related how difficult it was to meet and date someone. Most of the fellows I knew were married. He kind of smiled and excused himself for a few minutes. When he returned, he said he had a friend who had just lost his father, and his job as a TV weather man because the station had turned to automation of some programs to reduce their staff. The priest said he would like to take us both to dinner for our first meeting if we were agreeable. When he told me his friend’s name was Pierre La Vigne, but known in radio and television as “Perry Andrews,” I almost lost my breath.

 

I knew who this man was. My mother had often talked about his beautiful voice on the radio, and I used to see his weather segment on the evening news. Believe it or not, I used to try to see his ring finger to see if he was wearing a wedding band! Little did I know then Father Sauerwein’s mediation would become a life-changing event.

 

Father Sauerwein did arrange to take Pierre and me to dinner at the elegant King’s Contrivance Restaurant in Columbia, Maryland. During dinner, I think I hardly said two words, but Pierre and  golfing priest- friend, had much to talk about. After dinner, we returned to the rectory (at Father’s request, Pierre and I had each driven from our respective homes) for a bit. Not long after we sat down in the living room, Father excused himself to check his answering machine. My heart nearly went to my throat because I wondered what I was going to talk about with this still comparative stranger. But Pierre made it easy because he began asking questions I had to answer. That was July 19, 1973. We dated often for the next few months.On October 7, after opening several presents from Pierre, he handed me a small box as the last item to open. Imagine my surprise to see a solitaire diamond ring and wedding band.

 

The rest of the story began on January 12, 1974 as we pronounced our vows before Father Sauerwein, Father James Hobbs (my pastor at that time) and Bishop T. Austin Murphy, a dear friend, in the tiny country church in front of 150 guests, including two of my students, Dave Bishop (now a facebook friend) and Billy Czolba, who served as the altar boys during the Mass—forty-two years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tornado

We stood huddled in a closet measuring about 6x8x9 feet.

No windows.

One door.

Four of us—my son, Ian; his wife, Sandra: my daughter, Andrea, and me. Ian’s and Sandra’s two dogs being held in their arms.

Sandra prayed aloud. “God, keep us safe.”

Lights flickered, but we had a flashlight. They flickered again.

Then total darkness.

A growing rush of wind could be heard.

“Is that the train?” I asked. No response.

I felt the wall against which I stood vibrate a little—not much, just enough.

“The pressure.”

“Ears popped.”

That was the extent of any conversation as we four and two dogs listened to the roar of the wind. Added to that was banging, knocking, the clink of glass breaking.

Things banged against the outside of the house, like someone throwing beams of wood in anger. Clacking. Crushing. Thudding.

Then—Quiet. Calm. Noiseless. Except for the relaxing breaths being expelled by the four of us.

We waited a few more moments—hoping the thunderous roar had vanished forever.

 

We emerged from the center room to a silent dark. Only the beam of Ian’s flashlight guided our way around the house. Now began the assessment of any damage.

*~*

Writers are told to write what they know about. Before Saturday, December 26, 2015 in the early evening, I could not have told of this experience. Now I can.

 

We had just finished Christmas dinner when Ian’s scanner indicated rotations spotted near Rowlett. We turned on the television and computer to view the weather maps with their radar indicators. Tornadoes had been spotted from southeast of Dallas near Glenn Heights, Ovilla, Red Oak, and headed toward Rowlett and Rockwall areas. We were in Rowlett, sitting right in its path. So we put leashes on the dogs, and headed for the small room located near the dining room. The food remained on the table.

 

I had never experienced being in the crosshairs of a tornado before, but amazingly, I felt very calm. Was it disbelief that this was actually happening, or the beginning of shock? I still don’t know.

 

After the wild rush of the wind, which actually did sound like a train hurtling through, we found a dining room window had been broken, a skylight in the guest bathroom shattered, and an assortment of wood pieces, some with nails still embedded, scattered around the yard. The outdoor decorations were flattened. Power was gone from the whole area. People met on the street, some carrying flashlights, discussing what happened and what to do now. The family next door to my son’s house had a portion of their outside wall blown off  leaving only the studs showing. Beams of wood lay scattered all over lawns, and the street. When Ian was able to get on the roof to cover the hole left by the broken skylight, he discovered some more holes that had been punctured through the roof, some small, others needing larger pieces of covering. Andrea had gone out to inspect our van and returned to report the windshield was smashed. I thought she meant with a large hole, but the safety feature of the glass kept that from happening. However, it was shattered.  Fortunately, she was able to see on the left side of that spot so she could drive.

 

Andrea and I stayed for a little bit to help clean up where we could, then got in the car to come home. We drove down to the end of the street, rounded the corner, and found we could go no farther. There were at least two houses with their fronts blown completely off. Trees and huge limbs lay on the street. There was no exit at that end. So we drove to the other end, and found our way out—the only way we could go.

 

As we drove to I-30, the low pressure indicator on the dashboard lit up. One of our tires was losing pressure. We drove on until we took a service road to a 7-11 gas station, and called roadside assistance. About ninety minutes later, the man arrived to change our tire. During those ninety minutes, every emergency vehicle raced to and fro, their sirens screaming to make room for them to do their job.

 

By now, the hour was about 11:30. Since our ailing tire had been replaced with the “donut” we drove 45 miles per hour from Dallas to Jacksonville. Arrival time at home was 3:00 A.M.

 

This morning we learned more of what resulted from that storm. Yes, we had been caught in the crosshairs, but we learned the tornado touched down on one end of the street where we were, lifted as it sped along, missing several houses, including my son’s, and touched down again at the opposite end of the street, damaging several homes. We didn’t know until then just how fortunate we were.

 

Of course, there were other catastrophes and fatalities. And we pray for those caught in the way. I can only say I have experienced a tornado up close and never want to again. But it is something I can now write about because of that experience.

 

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Where do inspirations originate?

What inspires someone to write? That question popped into my mind as I sat down with my laptop wondering what to write for this blog.

Inspiration is a marvelous quality that serves our mind in myriad ways. We can be inspired to give someone a friendly greeting, take time to spend with a child, write a letter to a family member or someone we haven’t contacted for a while, or buy a gift for a special friend. Of course, these are only a very few ideas resulting from inspirations.

Inspiration can occur spontaneously or from a period of concentration on a particular focal point, such as a painting, or a walk in the woods. It’s something easily taken for granted, and when it doesn’t happen, frustration may just take over.

Writers depend on inspiration for that opening sentence to a new novel, or article. They know editors put themselves in the place of thousands of readers when determining quality of writing. If it “grabs” their attention, chances are the general reading public will be “hooked”, too. Before that, though, writers depend on inspiration to provide them with an idea they can develop into a story.

When I was about five years old, I walked into a candy store near my grandparents’ house, and pointed out a few kinds of penny candy I wanted. The storekeeper bagged the candy and gave it to me, announcing that he wanted ten cents in return. I ran from the store, enjoyed the candy on the way to my grandparents’ house, and disposed of the evidence (the bag). I was spending time with my grandmother that afternoon, and when I arrived , she t her house, she asked about the candy. Of course, I denied having any of the sweet stuff. Then she told me about the storekeeper calling her up and relating what happened. I still denied having done what he said. She asked why I had black around my lips. Evidently, the black licorice I enjoyed left a tell-tale mark. That incident inspired the story, Licorice Lips, which I sold a few years ago to Good Old Days magazine. By the way, I did have to take the owner a dime and the hardest part was facing him. But it was a lesson learned.

A small picture of a jockey riding a racehorse was the inspiration for my first book, Wind-Free. At a writers’ group meeting, we were asked to choose from a group of pictures, go home, and write a short story based on the picture we had chosen. By the time it was my turn to obtain the picture, the racehorse was the only one left. That resulted in a ten-page story. From there I was encouraged to write the story of a young girl, a very young horse, and the challenges each faced as they form a mutual bond.

The whirr of a room air conditioner sounded like a group of people mumbling. That was my inspiration to begin writing a mystery, which I’m still working on. The air conditioner figures into the story, although the logistics of handling how it does are still being worked out.

I’m sure every author has their own lists of inspiring ideas that have been the catalysts for a good, even great, story. Recently, I had the distinction of reviewing Secrets of the Dead by Caleb Pirtle, III. If you want to read a powerful story based on World War II, this is a must-read. Jodi Picoult also uses a World War II background for her book, The Storyteller, another powerful story. Two authors, two different inspirations, one historical background long remembered in the mind of mankind.

Inspiration is a marvelous tool. Use it well. What inspires you today to open your computer, put both hands on the keyboard, and begin to form the words that radiate from your mind and heart may be the next best-seller.

 

 

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IF WISHES WERE HORSES . . .

If wishes were horses—I’m not really going to finish that here. But the reason I’m saying that is because right now I’m almost halfway finished reading “Handle With Care” by Jodi Picoult.

I’ve read several of her books and enjoyed every one of them. The one that really “blew me away” was “The Storyteller.” But actually I began to read “Handle . . .” before “The Storyteller.” I had to stop about a quarter of the way through because I couldn’t handle the subject matter–the daughter of her main character born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or the layman’s version, “brittle bone disease.”  After completing my reading of other novels, I happened to come across “Handle With Care” again. This time I thought I would start it over and read to the end. So I’m halfway there and I can appreciate the subject matter better. Why now, I can’t say.

I marvel at the research Jodi had to have done to get her story right. With her style, she pulls the reader into whatever situation she is describing, so I’m sure her preparation for each story is lengthy, and intense. She doesn’t gloss over the facts of the disease or the trauma families endure when it happens to them. The reader struggles with the family as they work through the decisions they must make and the consequences of those decisions, while wondering if there will be a little light of hope in the end.

 

 

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Listen to your thoughts

The other day I attended the funeral of a dear friend who had succumbed to cancer. Her son, daughter-in-law, and four year old grandson, Jackson, stood with me at the casket to say good-by. Jackson’s mother leaned down and said to him, “Do you want to say something to Grandmom?”

 

He uttered a few words, then looked at his mother and said, “I don’t think she’s listening.”

 

A powerful statement from a four year old. But it sparked a thought in my mind. In this world of noise and technological distraction, do we take time to listen to our thoughts? Or do we accept the bombardment of constant chatter, horns, whistles, sirens, blaring radios, and the constant drone of television as being just a part of life that we have to deal with?

 

As a writer, I have to pay attention to my thoughts and what they are telling me. They are the main source of inspiration for a new story or article, or just a few interesting sentences in a journal. I have to do what Jackson thought his grandmother didn’t do—listen.

 

We have all heard about writers of old working alone in a garret in their home. The rounded room generally found on Victorian homes was their “alone” place. Not many of us have such a room, but to find our own “alone” place certainly helps. It doesn’t guarantee that we’ll produce the great novel, but it’s a start. What it can do is help us to sit back, ponder, and listen to the thoughts that come to mind. It helps us to get “lost” in our little world, let our imaginations take over and lead us to the scenes that will help us write our chapters. We can bring in the characters, listen to their dialogue, and get it on paper before the thoughts fly away.

 

“Writing” isn’t just putting words in the computer or on paper. “Writing” begins with an idea we want to develop. It is in the process of development that we really need to listen to our thoughts. Some people even vocalize their thoughts, so they hear what they sound like, and can adjust the wording accordingly to better fit the story. They are listening to what they want the reader to understand.

 

There is an episode of the old Dick Van Dyke comedy show where he wanted to write a book. His home was not conducive to being able to concentrate, so he went to a cabin in the woods. That was his “alone” place. He placed his typewriter on the table, rolled a sheet of typing paper in, and began to type. Not satisfied with what he wrote, he pulled out the paper, wadded it up, and threw it in the basket. This happened repeatedly. Then he decided his pencils needed sharpening. He found excuses—one after another—not to write. Of course, the show was funny, and I’m sure every writer identified with the frustration he was feeling. The one thing he didn’t do was to relax, and think. He couldn’t listen to his thoughts because he didn’t allow them to happen. We need to allow our thoughts and imagination take charge in developing our story.

 

Jackson’s statement really impressed me. I am reminded now to take time, let my mind settle, and really listen to what I want before hitting the keys to write that “great American novel.”

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Tribute to Betty

She was a quiet woman, a single mom who raised her son to be the best that a person can be. She went to work each day for the city, always outwardly calm in dealing with the public. She had a sense of humor that caused her laugh to bubble from within. For a while, she loved shopping on the Shopping Channel (QVC–I think it was), and when we exchanged gifts at Christmas time, my daughter and I received some of those items she bought from there. They still adorn our shelves in the living room.

When her son, Ken, and my son, Ian, were in Middle School, they grew to be great friends, partly because she and her son lived only two doors away from us. One Hallowe’en in particular, my son taped weird noises, and he and Ken hid near our front porch. When the kids came trick or treating, the boys turned up the volume and those noises emanated from the side of the house. The kids were either cautious, scared, or curious. That was fun to watch.

They did many other things together. Like going to Alaska. Betty was a little apprehensive about the two of them flying there, and being on their own in the largest state. But Ian told her everything would be fine, “not to worry.” Her laughter was nervous, but she made the effort to hide the feeling. And the boys had a great time.

When Ken met Luann, he knew this was the woman he wanted to share a life with. The wedding would be in Florida. Betty boarded the plane, and welcomed her new daughter-in-law.

When Ken and Luann moved to Illinois, Betty wasn’t happy with the distance between them, but she took advantage of time off from work to fly to Chicago and spend time with Ken, Luann, and their new son, Jackson. That little fellow brought so much joy to Betty.

Several months ago, Betty was diagnosed with cancer. She faced this challenge with a heroic acceptance that she could conquer this killer-disease, and spent months undergoing chemo and radiation. Yes, she lost her beautiful red hair, but she had a wig for “public appearances.” Her voice faded some, and of course, she lost quite a bit of weight. But her spirit stayed strong.

She mentioned to my son she wanted to have a tree like the ones that grew outside of City Hall. He found out they were ornamental pear trees, and managed to get a similar tree for her. My daughter, Andrea, and I managed to get it over to Betty’s house (after its long trip in our van from a nursery near Rowlett). Betty walked out and showed us where she wanted the tree planted. Andrea dug the hole, set the tree in it, packed the dirt back around it. Then using a tree support kit, we tied the tree to stakes, gave it a good watering, and left it. Betty said she could see it from her living room window, which is why she chose that particular spot.

After Betty completed her radiation treatments, her voice gained some of its strength back, her hair began to grow back in–“salt and pepper,” she said–and we were hopeful of her recovery. But it was not meant to be.

Earlier this week we learned Betty had nurses from hospice help care for her. The cancer had not been completely removed and had spread. Then we heard she was in the hospice facility where the nurses wanted to make her ambulatory before sending her back home. But that would not happen. Ken flew from Illinois to be with his mom.

This morning, October 9, 2015 around 1:30 a.m.,Betty peacefully left this earth as Ken and family members were with her.

We will miss her physical presence, her bubbly laugh, and her soft voice. But the memories remain. They contain her legacy of humor, her love of simple things, and her genuine love for people and pets.

She was truly a gift to humanity. Thank you, our friend,  for sharing your life with us.

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