Tim Horvath is one of the writers I admire for their ability to tell interesting stories against interesting backdrops in interesting ways. Like T.C. Boyle, he is equally comfortable writing a “traditional” story about a divorcee who has a brother who is in perpetual search of his next get-rich-quick scheme and a German expat arborist who taught biology alongside Heidegger as Hitler launched his pathetic and effective attack on Jewish intellectuals. Mr. Horvath’s collection, Understories, weaves a tapestry of imagination, alternating between good, old-fashioned short stories and short shorts that demonstrate how exciting contemporary literature can be if we privilege idea and narrative.
Please follow along by reading the story. Understories is more than worth the purchase price and you should really consider buying it from its publisher, Bellevue Literary Press. The book is also available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Kobo. May I also suggest that you get the book from your local indie bookseller? That’s what I did. The fine folks at The River’s End Bookstore in Oswego, New York are always happy to get you any book that you like and the same can be said for the owners of the indie store nearest you. If you are on a college student’s budget (or that of an adjunct college teacher), you can read the story through your library’s database; it first appeared in Conjunctions.
In this installment of the GWS First Page Inquisition, I will take a look at the very beginning of “The Discipline of Shadows,” a story that Mr. Horvath was inspired to write by a random exercise suggested by his writing group. If you juxtapose the anecdote describing the story’s origin with the story itself, you’ll see the intersection of inspiration and creation. Mr. Horvath was not held thrall by the initial spark that led him to put pen to paper; he let the idea evolve and ended up telling the reader a ripping story.
Without further ado, let’s look at the first page of Mr. Horvath’s story and see what makes it so great and effective.
Up on the chair, I reach for the ceiling and beat the vents, sending mold fluttering downward. Like some black rain, it lands variously on me, on chipped, yellowing tiles, on the paperwork fanned out over my desk. It speckles the latest budget, leaves a trail of powder on the glossy cover of the newest International Journal of Umbrology. It must be going into my lungs. I think about miners descending, invisible until the shaft collapses and the cameras swarm. Maybe, I think, this is what we need–some tragedy. Something more than mere scandal. More than Lew and his lawyer. More than the death of a department, which is like an animal, already limping, vanishing at last under the wheels.
I won’t have time to change my shirt before the big meeting, and for a moment I regret this. After all, lawyers and trustees, the titled and brass-nameplated, will be there. Lew’s “representation,” all the way from Lower Manhattan. At yesterday’s department meeting, the guy sat with Lew, hovering at the edge of my vision, a thick-browed smudge of pleated charcoal. Finally, I wanted to confront him. “Mr. Vadrais,” I wanted to say, “at the end of a workday, when you exit Two Fourteen Pearl, do you ever pause to take in the shadows?” I felt them like a chill, then, those revenants of an older New York, strewn across the narrow, birdshit-encrusted streets.
But I held my tongue. He would have been mystified, and the rest of them would’ve all thought I was losing it.
That’s it. 257 words. Let’s do an inventory of all of the exposition that Mr. Horvath crammed into the first page of his story:
- The story is in the first person.
- The protagonist is in a dusty/lived-in environment.
- The protagonist is a devotee of “Umbrology,” some kind of obscure scholarly pursuit.
- There’s trouble in the academic department that “some tragedy” may avert. (These are big stakes!)
- There is a lawyer involved…that’s never good.
- A “big meeting” will be attended by trustees and attorneys. Again, big stakes.
- The protagonist offers some insight into the poetry of Umbrology and that it relates to shadows.
The first page does its job because it does the basics, introducing character and tone and setting; the reader is quickly immersed in the world of the story. Mr. Horvath is also wise to establish some stout stakes. What will happen to this “discipline of shadows?”
The most important function that the first page serves is to ground the chronological narrative in the context of the rest of the story. Now, I really loved this story, or else I wouldn’t have written about it. But Mr. Horvath violates some of the Aristotelian Unities in a beautiful way. The first page of the story is one of many sections that take place in a wide range of settings and over a great many years. Ordinarily, bopping through time in a Whovian fashion might make it hard to understand what is going on. Instead, Mr. Horvath introduces all of the bits that are important in the dramatic present before dropping sections that are small patches of exposition or miniature narratives. For example, we get a detailed description of the state of the Umbrology department, advice for applying to such a department and a digression about the shadows that make a person fall in love with the field. These sections might be seen as tangents if Mr. Horvath hadn’t made a solemn promise on the first page: that he will tell you the story of how the Department of Umbrology slowly fades into darkness like the surface of the moon during a lunar eclipse.
If you found my analysis useful or enjoyed my writing style, would you consider checking out Great Writers Steal Press, where I have published some eBooks of the fiction and nonfiction variety? Just head over to books.greatwriterssteal.com, where reading is not homework!
Bellevue Literary Press, GWS First Page Inquisition, Tim Horvath
Title of Work and its Form: “Breatharians,” short story
Author: Callan Wink
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted the October 22, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. At the time of this writing, the story was available in full on the New Yorker web site. “Breatharians” was subsequently selected for The Best American Short Stories 2013.
Bonuses: Here is what Trevor Berrett thought of the story. Here is what Teddy Mitrosilis thought. Consider checking out Mr. Wink’s first collection: Dog Run Moon: Stories.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
August is a young man who is living between two worlds. To paraphrase Britney, he’s not a boy, not yet a man. His mother and father live in separate homes on the same property. His body is strong enough to allow him to kill cats without remorse, but he mourns the loss of his “birth dog.”
The inciting incident of the story is the moment when August’s father tells his son to “get rid of the damn” wild cats in his barn. August is happy to take on the work; he wants pocket money. The story covers the next couple days as the cat slaughter looms in the distance and the reader learns about the protagonist’s situation. It seemed to me as though Mr. Wink was most interested in painting the portrait of his interesting character. There’s an uneasy peace in August’s life: a peace that will be shattered when he finally figures out more about life. Continue Reading
Best American 2013, Callan Wink, Narrative Structure, The New Yorker
Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.
…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS–character–to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…
These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things. In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.
Caille Millner is a columnist and editorial writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. In those pursuits, Ms. Millner has a responsibility to the truth. Thankfully, she also enjoys the occasional adventure on the fiction side of the tracks. One of these is “The Surrogate,” a story that appeared in Joyland Magazine.
Ms. Millner is available on Twitter. Once you are done reading her story and the reasoning behind some of her choices, why not send her 140 characters about how much you liked her story?
1) The inciting incident is super clear in the story. Franco says he wants to have a “baby of his own” with Cecily. The confession changes the story, just like a good inciting incident should. But then you go several pages without addressing Franco’s request again; you spend a lot of time telling us about their marriage and how Cecily’s surrogacy works.
How do you think you maintained tension in the narrative while putting the main conflict aside for a little while?
The work of surrogacy is naturally tense, just by the simple facts of how it works. A woman who needs money performs the labor of pregnancy for someone else, according to someone else’s rules and standards — and she often has to do so while caring for her own children and her own family.
That’s a situation fraught with all kinds of emotions. Yet we’ve mostly chosen to keep all of these details under wraps. Think of how many times you’ve read in a newspaper that someone wealthy gave birth “via surrogate,” as if the surrogate were a machine instead of a human being.
They aren’t machines, they’re women, and there’s usually a stark class divide between the surrogates and their clients. The U.S. is one of the only developed countries that allows paid surrogacy — most of the others feel like the attendant ethical questions are too much for them to handle, as a society. We don’t even talk about the ethical questions.
But that silence makes the situation rich ground for storytelling and exploration. Simply unrolling the details of Cecily’s situation creates a feeling of tension in the reader, because when as you slowly let the details sink in, you realize that everything about Cecily’s situation is emotionally extreme.
2) At least a few of the sentences in your story are what I call “backwards sentences.” For example:
“It’s the closeness of the way that they have to live that makes her uneasy.”
“To cool the house they’ve got all the lights off;…”
How come you put the subject of the sentence (or clause) so far in?
The narrative POV in this story wasn’t too far away from the subjects, so I occasionally wrote the narration in a way that they might speak themselves. It keeps up the rhythm of their voices.
3) This happens about 60% of the way through the story:
“He smiles and gets up to go into the black maw of the kitchen, bringing back a beer for himself and a diet soda for her. She isn’t supposed to drink the diet sodas but she does anyway.”
What’s this choice all about? I guess I understand that Cecily has decided to take mild risks by drinking caffeine during pregnancy. But why did you make Franco bring her the diet soda?
It’s a small gesture that seemed natural to their relationship. And it’s in keeping with their personalities. Franco is a decent, considerate man who would like to do more for everyone than he’s currently capable of doing. Cecily is sitting down, outwardly passive, but in reality doing far more work than other people feel comfortable enough to acknowledge.
4) About halfway through, the narrator’s mind-reading powers shift from focusing on Cecily to focusing on Franco. I know you had to do that because Franco and Omar had to do some stuff together in the story without Cecily there.
What made the POV switch in the story okay?
Because it’s a story about their relationship, and about how this massive, bizarre situation that they’re in has affected their ability to connect and to give to each other. There are two people in that equation, and the readers needed to hear from the other one.
5) Last lines are always really important! Here’s yours:”Cecily has to nearly choke before she realizes that she’s been holding her breath while she watches.”
Those words stick out for me: “has to nearly choke.” The rest of the sentence flows, but “has to nearly choke” feels to me like the kind of speed bump that means something. What was your thinking there?
I’m glad you caught that! I wanted to give the reader a physical sensation very close to the one she was experiencing in that moment. If you say the sentence aloud, you’ll notice that running all of the syllables together is difficult, the sequence of words deliberately slows you down. It’s a way to collect all of the unspoken tension and emotion so that you can feel it again before you leave this family.
Caille Millner is a writer, essayist, and memoirist. She’s the author of The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification (Penguin Press), an editorial writer and weekly columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and has had essays in The Los Angeles Review of Books and A New Literary History of America. Her awards include the Barnes and Noble Emerging Writers Award and the undergraduate Rona Jaffe award for fiction.
Caille Millner, Joyland Magazine, Why'd You Do That?
Poems from Superstition Review, a brief interview in Agave Magazine.)
This (very) short prose work begins with a quotation from Louis Pasteur. Ms. Lawry uses Pasteur’s words as a jumping-off point for what appears to me to be a look at how Ms. Lawry believes her mind works and the kinds of thinking that result in inspiration. (The author may, of course, have a different idea about her piece and that’s okay, too.)
One of the things I like most about this piece is the implied suggestion that Ms. Lawry is making to the rest of us. If you’re like me, you like to play around and experiment with writing. Why not borrow Ms. Lawry’s idea and find some wise words from the past and create something new out of what you think they mean?
I’m not exactly the most “quote”-infatuated person. They just don’t inspire me on their own in the way they do for many people. That’s not to say that I don’t derive some kind of enlightenment and pleasure from reading inspirational extracts; I guess I just prefer understanding “quotes” in context. (I’m a storyteller and a plot person; I suppose this makes sense.) My proclivity certainly doesn’t prevent me from participating in the experiment I’m proposing. For example, one of my favorite sentences (and final sentences) is from Animal Farm:
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
There are so many jumping-off points! I could write prose poem similar to Ms. Lawry’s about the thoughts that Orwell’s work evokes in me:
- The inability that many people have to recognize the real “bad guy” in situations.
- My feelings of being an outsider as I look upon others who have undeserved success. (I’m thinking Kardashians.)
- I really like pork chops and I wish I knew more about food science. The Maillard Reaction is the magic that creates the complicated flavor in browned meat. I also grew up without using salt, which somehow adds some magic to my current (and intermittent) culinary adventures.
See? Look how thinking about a “quote” can get some thoughts rolling around your head! What happens if you do the same?
I also like the way Ms. Lawry contradicts and gets in the way of Pasteur’s thought. By beginning with “I have no prepared mind,” Ms. Lawry is doing something that reminds me of my improv comedy roots. In a way, she’s “blocking” Pasteur. A “block” is when a performer says NO to something a scenemate has said. Blocks are (usually) killers because they stop the scene.
Bob: Hey, look at this beautiful dog I found!
Sally: That’s not a dog. It’s an elephant.
See how Sally messed up the scene? Now the audience thinks Bob has been walking around with an elephant in his arms. Everything has screeched to a halt. Sad. When you’re working with other people, particularly in an endeavor such as improv, you just can’t block in this manner. See how beautiful and creative people can be when they say “yes, and” instead of “no?”
But guess what…writing is a solitary pursuit and you can do whatever you like! Further, your characters will say or do anything you want, so blocks can be useful in creating a number of dramatic effects. Why not employ blocks to create drama and to establish character?
Have you seen Breaking Bad? If not, what are you waiting for? Go watch it NOW.
Okay, you’re back. Here are some examples from Breaking Bad that illustrate how blocking results in high-wire tension.
Remember when Skyler told Walt to go to the police and confess that he’s a drug king? Walt says no. Skyler tells Walt he’s in danger. Walt uncorks a crackerjack monologue:
That’s right…Walt is the one who knocks.
The whole point of Breaking Bad is to chronicle the moral evolution and tragic downfall of Walter White. Gus Fring asks Walt to serve as his meth chef in a Superlab. Walt will have all of the cool scientific equipment he needs to make the purest meth possible. (You have to admire Walt’s dedication to chemistry…) How does Walt respond to the request? He says no.
Arguments and discussions need some conflict and that sometimes requires characters to contradict each other. In this case, Gus is forced to persuade Walt to join him:
Think about a scene you’re building or a poem you’re working on. What if one character says “no?” What if there’s some unexpected internal or external opposition to the idea you’re expressing? Experiment with blocking to see if you can add unexpected power to your work.
Exercises, Short Story
Breaking Bad, elsewhere, Mercedes Lawry
Title of Work and its Form: “Leap of Faith,” short story
Author: Brendan DuBois
Date of Work: 2015
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut the February 2015 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The fine folks at that magazine have posted an excerpt of this equally fine story.
Bonuses: Here is an interview the author gave to WGBH. Here is his Smashwords page. Want to see Mr. DuBois discuss his work? Sure you do. (What he says is really inspiring!)
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
I’m not quite sure why, but I devote a lot of GWS focus to “literary” fiction, for whatever that means. I’m guessing I’m not the only one, but I love spending time in the realm of “genre.” Or whatever that means. Mr. DuBois is a fantastic writer of mystery and suspense fiction and we should all be familiar with his work.
This particular story is a first-person piece whose protagonist is named Hank Kelleher. This is a frame story; the first couple pages take place when Hank is an adult. He climbs his way to the old quarry, a place that many people can understand. Isn’t there a similar place in every town? In this particular case, teens exercised their invincibility by drinking beers on the bank of a man-made lake and jumping into the water from three outcroppings of increasing height: Rook, Bishop and King. A police officer questions Hank, giving Mr. DuBois the excuse for Hank to tell the story of what happened when he was young. Hank’s father died when he was young, leaving him the “man of the family.” As a teen, Hank felt deficient in this duty because he couldn’t protect his little sister Kara from Dev Cullen, her abusive rich kid boyfriend. I don’t want to describe all of the fun out of the story. Suffice to say that “Leap of Faith” is tidy, entertaining and powerful.
One of the biggest reasons that “literary” writers should spend more time in the mystery sandbox is because writers like Mr. DuBois excel at creating plots that are utterly fictional, but seem perfectly natural in the refractory period after the story’s final blow. After setting up the frame–believe me, we’ll talk about that frame–Mr. DuBois wastes zero time introducing the story’s characters and central conflict:
The name’s Hank Kelleher, and I was seventeen that summer. And that’s when my fifteen-year-old sister Kara got into trouble. Not that kind of trouble, thank God, but over supper one night Mom had pressed my sister Kara about why she was dating Dev Cullen. “You know he’s just a bad sort,” Mom said, as she slapped dollops of mashed potatoes on the chipped white plates we used, next to the freshly made Hamburg steak. “He and his father Patrick and his damn uncle Blackie. Crooks, all of them. You stay away from him.”
The reader is not asked to wonder what is going on or to break out graph paper to chart the relationships between a thousand characters. Nope. Hank has a baby sister who is dating a bad young man. Everyone understands this situation, regardless of gender, race or age. Instead of wondering what is happening, we’re wondering something more specific: how will Hank save (or try to save) Kara from Dev.
If you are a dedicated GWS reader, you know that I love Freytag’s Pyramid and I love countdowns and other literal representations of its principles. The climax of the story takes place at the abandoned quarry, the place where teenagers go to…well, be teenagers. Mr. DuBois describes the quarry in the introduction of the story. There are three jumping platforms of increasing height: Rook, Bishop and King.
Why do I love the way Mr. DuBois contrived the geology of the story? The quarry’s topography is a literal match for Freytag’s Pyramid.
Like I said, I don’t want to give away too much, but the climax reaches increasing peaks of rising action on all three jumping platforms. The reader gets a moment of excitement…and then the calm as the splash recedes. We’re not wondering anything general about Hank’s motivations; we know he wants to protect his sister. Instead, our curiosity is focused upon a single, specific question: how is Hank’s final plan going to protect his sister and get Dev off of their case? Since the reader’s curiosity is so focused, Mr. DuBois can simply draw out the tension and put us on tenterhooks.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. DuBois is also a fan of something I love a great deal: old-time radio dramas. One of my favorite programs is Suspense, which I suppose you could say was a bit like the Law & Order of its day (before the radio version of Dragnet premiered). Every week, the Man in Black would introduce a story. For half an hour, you would get thrills and chills and an ending that you didn’t see coming. (But an ending that makes sense in retrospect.) Here’s one of the best episodes ever, and one that was repeated live several times. It’s Agnes Moorehead in “Sorry, Wrong Number:”
Why should you listen to every episode of Suspense? Because the plots were usually constructed with flawless precision. The writers were expert at trading levels of power between characters. And the nature of radio required an awful lot of first-person narrators and frame stories. (You can’t exactly have long moments of silence on the radio and a third person narrator that zips around a lot would likely be confusing.) So go check out the vast beauty of old time radio.
Okay, let’s talk about that frame. At first, I was wondering why Mr. DuBois began with that present-day introduction and told the real narrative in flashback. I’m thinking about the suspense/crime stories I’ve written and I’m much more likely to begin with the sentences that kick off the flashback, “The name’s Hank Kelleher…” than a passage that is much calmer:
It took me three tries before I found the old dirt road, on the outskirts of the small Massachusetts town where I had grown up. The road twisted and turned, and ended up in a wide turnaround. There used to be a trail that went up a high slope, but now there was a chain-link fence blocking access. Every few feet there was a no trespassing sign, contrasting with trespassers will be prosecuted. I parked the rental car, got out, walked over to the fence.
Why did Mr. DuBois make the right choice? What can we learn? Putting the what-happens-to-Dev story in a frame allows Mr. DuBois to…
- Foreshadow that something significant happened in the quarry and in the Hank-Kara-Dev trio. After all, Old Hank knows what happened.
- Contrast the differences between the eighties and the present-day. The quarry is now filled up, being there attracts the attention of the police.
- Conclude with an ending frame that gives us a “happy ending” of sorts and tells us information to which we would not have access otherwise.
For more proof that Mr. DuBois made the right decision, think about the way the frame functions in the classic Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man.” Now, “Leap of Faith” is a very different story, but I think that the structures are similar.
What Should We Steal?
- Ensure that your plots invite your reader to wonder about increasingly specific questions. Think about LOST. At first, we wondered, “Where are they?” After five years, we were wondering, “What’s the Man in Black’s relationship to the John Locke who reappeared on The Island and how does he relate to the Heart of The Island?”
- Employ Freytag’s Pyramid in literal ways. The size of the dragons the hero must fight get larger for a reason…
- Consider trading an extra-punchy first sentence for greater depth and utility of narrative. Freytag’s Pyramid encourages us to employ a slow build in our plots; doing so is sometimes better than an explosive opening sentence or paragraph.
2015, Brendan DuBois, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Narrative Structure
GWS Short Film
Title of Work and its Form: “God,” short story
Author: Benjamin Nugent
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: “God” made its debut in Fall 2013’s Issue 206 of The Paris Review, one of the biggest journals around. The story was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2014 and can be found in the anthology.
Bonuses: Listen to this audio interview Mr. Nugent gave to The Lit Show‘s Ben Mauk in support of his novel, Good Kids. Here is “The Rugby Witch,” a story that was published in The L Magazine. Here is a fun video in which Mr. Nugent discusses the word “nerd:”
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Audience
The first person narrator is a college student and a member of the Delta Zeta Chi fraternity. The frat’s world has been turned upside down by God. No, not a supernatural being. God is the nickname they have given to Melanie, a young woman who has captured the heart of their leader, Caleb Newtown–also known as “Nutella.” Melanie flexed her literary muscles, penning a poem about Nutella’s problem with premature ejaculation. God’s revelation moves each frat brother’s heart in different ways. Five-Hour nearly manages to have sex with God, but he is prevented from doing so because of a little bit of erectile dysfunction. The story’s climax is the expected one, but Mr. Nugent does a good job of imbuing the story with far more weight than such a piece might otherwise have.
There’s so much to admire about this story, but I’ll begin with the point I was just making. I often mention my preoccupation with “the woman on the bus.” Lee K. Abbott, my stellar teacher at Ohio State, used this idea to describe the kind of audience he has in mind when he writes. I sometimes worry that our literary community has become too insular; that we’re not making as many new readers as are necessary to keep us going. Are we dealing with subject matter that is too esoteric for the mainstream? Are we abandoning plot and other elements that are attractive to a wide audience? We’re competing with TV, film, texting and the Internet, after all. Why can’t more “literary” work be “fun?”
This is a story about romantic attraction and its resultant sexual complications. People are interested in reading about that. This story is funny; I made at least half a dozen smiley faces in my copy. People like laughing. The story is packed with beautiful sentences, but Mr. Nugent keeps the story humming along nicely. I suppose that what I’m saying is that writers of literary fiction should follow Mr. Nugent’s lead and tilt the scales just a little bit more in the direction of entertainment as a priority. Art feeds the heart and mind; perhaps we should make the heart a little more prominent in what we produce.
“God” is a story predicated upon a classic and powerful conceit. For months, the world of Delta Zeta Chi and its members was stable. The brothers cared about each other, everyone admired Nutella and everyone had complementary goals. That was before Melanie/God showed up and turned Delta Zeta Chi upside down. After the young woman writes the poem, the social order and heirarchy of the frat is destabilized. Instead of doing what they can to find their own girlfriends, many of the brothers want to enjoy special time with M/G, as though having sex with her will transfer some of Nutella’s power to them. And the narrator has some very interesting reasons for wanting to have sex with her…
Think of the previous paragraph and replace all of the mentions of the frat with “Camelot.” Wow! It’s pretty much the same story! All is good in Camelot until that darn Lancelot comes around, pretending he’s all moral and high-minded…until Guinevere makes eyes at him. Writers are often interested in building worlds. What happens if you decide to destroy a world instead?
What Should We Steal?
- Lighten up and entertain. Should we go full Kardashian? Of course not. (That’s a gross mental image.) Perhaps we should be just a little more cognizant of the need to attract and keep more readers.
- Begin with a nice, stable subculture and setting…then shake it up. The Republic is doing just fine…until the Senate elects the obvious bad guy to be Emperor. The proverbial marriage is doing just fine…until one partner gets a couple hangup phone calls.
2013, Audience, Benjamin Nugent, Best American Short Stories 2014, The Paris Review
Title of Work and its Form: “La Pulchra Nota,” short story
Author: Molly McNett
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in Issue 78 of Image. “La Pulchra Nota” was subsequently chosen for Best American Short Stories 2014.
Bonuses: Check out One Dog Happy, the collection Ms. McNett published through University of Iowa Press. Here is an interview Ms. McNett granted to one of her former students. Here is “Lonesome Road,” a piece of creative nonfiction that Ms. McNett published in Brain, Child. Check out Karen Carlson’s powerful analysis of the story.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Historical Fiction
John Fuller is a 29-year-old man who was, as he says, “born in the year of our Lord 1370.” He informs the reader that he has suffered a “grave accident” and no longer has use of his hands. Fuller tells his story with the help of a scribe and does so beautifully. Fuller was born with eyes that cast their gaze askew; his aesthetic misfortune led him to marry the first and seemingly only woman who would have him. Katherine is from a wealthy family and their lives are happy enough until their beloved twins die. As Katherine retreats from Fuller, one of his voice students gives him the attention that he has always craved. Olivia is a small wisp of a young woman who manages to produce “la pulchra nota,” a heavenly sound. She confesses her love, Fuller does a little too much thinking about the young lady and, well, just read the story. It’s a knockout.
I know…I know…there are about eleventy trillion stories that are set in the past and historical fiction is its own genre. I guess that I just don’t recall seeing too many in literary journals…and this is a shame because these kinds of stories are so much fun! In a way, a story like “La Pulchra Nota” turns the reader into a time traveler. What would it be like to stop by a bookstall and to buy a Shakespeare Quarto? What was it like to live during the American Revolution and discover that you are married to a Tory? Did Egyptian slaves have any time for romantic longing during the time they were building the pyramids? (And could love set them free to any extent?)
Ms. McNett is also smart enough to sidestep many of the challenges inherent in the composition of historical fiction. Do you know everything about fourteenth-century England? Me, neither. I’m wondering how well I could even communicate with John Fuller if we met; after all, he grew up in the time of Chaucer. Ms. McNett doesn’t focus too closely on the clothing, language, food, science or customs of her specific time and place. Instead, she keeps our attention on what we share with John Fuller, Katherine and Olivia. Humans still suffer disabilities and disfigurement…we still love our children and mourn their untimely deaths…we still have sexual longing and can be driven to extremes when our needs in that arena are not met.
Ms. McNett’s use of Christian mythology is also a “binding agent.” Whether or not you are an actual Christian, you are no doubt familiar with the worldview that puts stress on the Fuller marriage. You are willing to ignore your curiosity about some of the finer details because you understand what it means when Ms. McNett writes:
- “…divine providence was pleased to take the life of our dear twins…”
- “…every devout man knows the great mercy he shows us in taking a child out of the world.”
- “…it pleased the Lord to take to paradise my father the organist…”
Another facet of the story that I admire is the way Ms. McNett employs the first person. After making it clear that Fuller is disabled, she has her protagonist unspool his life story. In the hands of a lesser writer (someone like me), this story could have been pretty boring. Instead, Ms. McNett focuses on the important, interesting and necessary moments in Fuller’s life. We need to know about his disfigurement and how it happened and about his marriage and how and why everything changed. Ms. McNett doesn’t bog the narrative down by including extended sections about where Fuller bought his food or what his education was like or anything else that would seem superfluous. I love Les Miserables a ton, but you have to admit that some of the sections about the Paris sewer system aren’t quite as necessary as the scenes with Fauchelevent. “La Pulchra Nota” never stops moving and that’s why we love the story. Ms. McNett follows the advice of the great Elmore Leonard, whose tenth rule of writing is:
“I try to leave out the parts that readers skip.”
What Should We Steal?
- Set your story in the distant past. If we learned nothing else from The Twilight Zone, it’s that people are the same all over. Mix things up by dispatching your Muse into centuries gone by.
- Focus on the commonalities we share with old-time characters, not our differences. Our ability to understand and/or relate to a character is more important than knowing what kinds of spice to which the protagonist has access.
- Obey Elmore. Leave out the boring parts.
2013, Best American Short Stories 2014, Historical Fiction, Image, Molly McNett
Title of Work and its Form: “Charity,” short story
Author: Charles Baxter
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story debuted in Issue 43 of McSweeney’s. Heidi Pitlor and Jennifer Egan chose to include the work in Best American Short Stories 2014.
Bonuses: Karen Carlson always has some interesting thoughts to share, this time about Mr. Baxter’s story. Here is a Midwestern Gothic interview in which Mr. Baxter discusses his connection to the region. Want to see what Mr. Baxter said about his work at St. Francis College?
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Point of View
When Matty and Harry met, they were Americans living in Africa, doing what they could to help sick people. Harry loved that Matty/Quinn was filled with kindness for the people around him and wasn’t helping out in hopes of making a profit. As the Bard might say, the course of true love never did run smooth. Though they remain boyfriend and boyfriend after returning to the States, Matty ends up living in a friend’s basement, addicted to the painkillers that are his only relief from the pain caused by a sickness even the Mayo Clinic can’t identify. The story is split into two sections; the first describes the dire straits in which Matty finds himself and the second is a first-person account of Harry’s trip to Minneapolis to find and help his boyfriend.
Mr. Baxter tricked me! Ever since grad school, I’ve been in the habit of jotting down the story’s point of view and the names of the important characters. Doing so helps me remember the story the next time it’s brought up and addresses one of my blind spots: I’m REALLY bad at remembering character names. So I started reading “Charity:”
He had fallen into bad trouble. He had worked in Ethiopia for a year…
So I uncapped my fountain pen and wrote: 3RD and eventually QUINN. All was well and good until I reached the next section:
That was as far as I got whenever I tried to compose an account of what happened to Matty Quinn–my boyfriend, my soulmate, my future life…
Uh oh. That’s first person. What’s going on? Well, Mr. Baxter has made a fantastic choice: that’s what’s going on. Even though Harry most certainly asked Matty about what happened in Minneapolis, he was not there for every moment. The story therefore benefits from casting the first section in third person. The narrator (Harry, in this case) is able to immerse the reader in the story much more deeply than if he had to tell the tale from a distance. Further, the first section really does belong to Matty; he’s the protagonist in the events, he’s the focal character…so the story SHOULD be told from his perspective. The second section, on the other hand, is very much Harry’s story. He’s the one who meets up with Black Bird and who does what he can to bring Matty back to life.
If you’re lucky enough to have the Best American volume, you can read the end notes that accompany each story. Mr. Baxter reveals the most fascinating piece of information regarding the genesis of “Charity:”
…I had just written a story called “Chastity,” in which my protagonist, Benny Takemitsu, gets mugged, and I thought, “I wonder who did that?” Whoever did it had to be desperate. Whoever it was, I thought, might be a good soul in the grip of something truly terrible. So I wrote it that way.
Isn’t that cool? Mr. Baxter’s choice offers a couple powerful advantages:
It’s really hard to come up with story ideas, isn’t it? Cherry-picking an event from another of your works can be the inspiration that gets you going on a new story. If you look at any of your stories, you’ll surely see all kinds of avenues ripe for exploration. Hmm…here’s what I’m thinking I could poach from my story, “Something Like a Sin:”
- Who are some of the other people who attend Transformation Baptist? What are they like?
- What else could happen in The Raven, the bar the protagonist frequents?
- What is Pastor Hocking’s family like? When has he failed to live up to his own standards?
- What happened with all of the other women the protagonist mentions?
- Who is in the house when Melody closes the door behind her?
See? If I’m dry for inspiration, looking to my past work can give me a jumpstart.
Mr. Baxter also gains something very important by reusing Benny Takemitsu’s mugging: he’s creating a discernible world. Isn’t it comforting to know that all of the Marvel characters know each other and can sometimes team up, for good or evil? Tying these two stories together makes Mr. Baxter’s Minneapolis seem more like a real place. Creating the mythology is also a good idea in light of the fact that Mr. Baxter is publishing a collection of stories about “virtues and vices:” Chastity, Charity, Refraining From Watching the Next Breaking Bad Episode on Netflix Before Your Spouse Does, and so on. A shared world only strengthens the conceit of the book.
What Should We Steal?
- Tell your story from the most appropriate and interesting point of view. Sure, you may have to break your story into sections and change POV, but that’s okay if it’s done in the service of the story.
- Borrow characters and situations from your other works. Even if it’s just a cameo from another character’s friend, people who read your work will find greater depth in the world you create.
2013, Best American Short Stories 2014, Charles Baxter, McSweeney's, Point of View
If you heard my craft interview with Jac Jemc, author of A Different Bed Every Time, you heard her give away one of her secrets to writing beautiful sentences:
A lot of what I do before I start working is gathering language from other sources…I steal a lot. So what I’ll do is I’ll just sort of scan pages of books I’m reading and pull out words that are most vivid and exciting to me and try to pair them in ways…It’s just an exercise in trying to match things up in a way I wouldn’t normally do.
I also will look at texts in other languages that I know poorly…I’ll try to read something complex in one of those languages and translate it, but for the most part, it’s wrong. Maybe I’m getting 25 to 50 percent of it right, but the way that I force myself to bridge those little gaps with cognates and things, it creates some fun language.
So let’s try it!
Can you read Latin? I wish I could. Here’s the original Latin text of the Magna Carta. Isn’t it amazing how you can pick up a little bit of what the document says? I know “rex” means “king.” I know “Dominus” because of “dominate.” “Hibernie” must be an old form of “Hibernia.”
If I were writing a fantasy or science fiction story, it would be a great idea to do an awful translation of the Magna Carta and use the result as the founding document of a government you create for the piece. It would also be fun to pluck the words and sentences you like best and use them as dialogue for a character who speaks an alien or dead language. Latin speakers would get the joke, and the rest of us would simply get the drift.
John Williams did something similar when he composed “Duel of the Fates” for Star Wars. He needed his chorus to sing some lyrics that sounded big and magical and timeless and meaningful…so he set the piece to a loose Sanskrit translation of “Cad Goddeu,” an ancient Welsh poem.
Think about it…would the piece sound as powerful if it had English lyrics?
Beat him up…
Real bad guy…
He has…red blades…on his…saber.
Wants to…kill the…good guy…Jedi.
No, that wouldn’t work. Instead, we should follow Ms. Jemc’s lead and play with languages in which we’re not quite fluent.
Want to try it yourself? Here are some examples of some documents that should be fun to translate:
Here are Martin Luther’s original Ninety-Five Theses. And here‘s an English translation.
Here‘s the German original of Goethe’s Faust.
Here‘s the French original of Molière’s Tartuffe.
Here are Nostradamus’s original quatrains.
Another facet of Ms. Jemc’s work that I admire is that she likes to work from prompts at times. You may have heard my reaction; I love to “write to order” sometimes. Ms. Jemc was asked to write a piece for a Melville House book intended to compile short stories for each of the Presidents of the United States. (Not the band, the actual people.) Ms. Jemc was lucky indeed to draw the assignment to write about Thomas Jefferson; a particularly interesting POTUS.
Here’s the result: “Head and Heart.”
It is, of course, impossible to chronicle every current call for submissions that includes a specific prompt or theme. There are, however, plenty of web sites that do an awfully good job trying to keep up.
Duotrope is probably the gold standard for market listings. For a small sampling of what they offer, check out their Twitter feed.
The Calls for Submissions Facebook group has 23,000 members! You’ll find lots of solicitations there; many of which are from editors looking for prompt-related material.
Do you know about NewPages? You certainly should! They’re one of the few outlets where you’ll find reviews of literary magazines. NewPages also maintains a classifieds section that features lots of great calls for submissions.
We might not be able to write exactly like Jac Jemc…but that’s okay! We’re all different writers. We can, however, exercise our skills by following her lead in a couple ways:
- Do bad translations of foreign prose to open our minds to new words and new ways of putting words together. We’ve been speaking and writing in our primary language so often and for so long that the rhythms of another tongue can shake us from our linguistic slumber.
- Find an interesting prompt and follow the rules they provide to produce a new work. Writers love to have freedom, but cool things can happen when we restrict our creativity a little bit.
Exercises, Short Story
Dzanc Books, GWS Exercise, Jac Jemc