Metaphor is one of the most useful tools we have for talking about story, especially when we are talking about how to find it, as a writer. I often use the metaphor of the loose thread. A story, I say, is like a loose thread that you tug on, gently. I can go on to say that you don’t necessarily know which end of it you’ve got hold of, the beginning or the ending.
Each story must have its original thread: something that you noticed, and just had to investigate, to see if it would come loose from the garment of life, or language. Knowing what that original thread was though might not always help from a reader’s perspective, nor perhaps even from the writer’s; not as far as writing, or reading the particular story is concerned. There might be some value though, to the writer, in knowing what sort of threads were pulled in a particular story, if only to give an idea of what sort of threads might be pulled, when we see them poking out.
What got me onto this train of thought was walking through my local village on a quest for eggs, and passing the local pub. It was this pub – The Royal Oak in Curthwaite – that was in my mind when I began writing the story Talking To Maurice, which is in effect the lead story in my Pewter Rose collection Talking To Owls. Whether or not there are any retired civil servants among the regular clientèle I could not say, but the place might have been in mind because, several years after the Foot & Mouth outbreak that the story recalls I chanced to have a conversation with a farmer – whom I had not met before, nor have since – who by chance had come to the pub for the first time since the disease. Being hit by the disease had changed his life, he told me, and not for the better. That conversation led me to recall others I had had during the outbreak itself, with vets, farmers, agricultural suppliers and others. The bizarre stories that they told – infected tongues thrown over hedges; farmers delirious with joy at having contracted the disease, others devastated by the news, of people barricading themselves in for fear of vets and Men-from-the-Ministry infecting them – meant that you need make nothing up.
The farm lane that Maurice drives back up at the end of the story is local, but the buildings I describe belong to a Staffordshire farm I used to visit, which had transformed itself, briefly as it turned out, into a rather attractive B&B.
Like the Irish stew, made out of water and a stone, in a story told by a tramp, this story of mine came together from lots of loose threads. Not least among them, of course, was the fact that I used to step outside at night and call to the local owls – who seemed to call back, sometimes from the direction of the village.
I don’t apologise for creating my short stories in this way. Indeed, I have very respectable precedents for doing so. Both George Moore and A.E.Coppard, both favourites of mine in the genre, did something similar. I also get a frisson of delight from the apparent irritation that this technique, when used so successfully by Coppard, seemed to cause for H.E.Bates, who, in his history of the short story, actually calls into doubt that it can be regarded as proper writing at all!