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I’ve been looking back over old stories, written over the past twenty years. Twenty years should be long enough to decide whether or not you can write short stories, but that’s another issue.
One of the stories I came across, from about fifteen years ago, wasn’t so short. In fact it was, is (probably) a novel, and stands at just under 48,000 words. Set in the eighteenth century youth, and early nineteenth century old age of its main protagonist, and told with the later period first, and with a Cadenza set in the middle years, it might be called a historical novel.
I certainly did quite a bit of reading around the two periods. It’s also set in Scotland – a place I know quite well, but don’t come from – and America, which I’ve never visited except on Radio and TV and in the movies.
Of course, it doesn’t matter where we come from. None of us have visited 1758 or 1803, or indeed 1774, except in the words and left over artefacts of people long dead and whom we never met, and of others who have passed on or interpreted those sources, second, third and umpteenth hand.
The past, as that oft quoted novel opening tells us, ‘is a foreign country’, and it is one that we are all, at any given moment, the same distance away from.
It’s our ideas about the past that change, and are changed by those accounts though, whereas what we want our stories to be about, even when they are historical, is, I suspect, largely influenced by the responses we have had, and are having at the time of needing to write, to events in our own lives.
Re-reading the story reminded me that though it was rejected a couple of times, I still like it. It reminded me too, that I haven’t given it the repeated opportunities for rejection that a story is entitled to! This last week I spent several hours taking out the speech marks. The fact that they are in there makes it a ‘very old’ story in my popgun (canon – ed.).
The time it has spent sitting unread in my metaphorical drawer has given me some distance. That has produced a mixed result. For one thing I know I couldn’t write it now. I couldn’t re-write it, though I could ‘correct’ it where it seems to veer off from the way it was written back then. Taking out the speech marks led to one or two other tweaks, but it’s not just a matter of style or technique. There’s an underlying narrative voice, and voice is the expression of a state of mind. I could slip back into it, for the purposes of repairs, but it’s a state of mind I don’t live in anymore. Perhaps that is because, when I did, I wrote this story.
So the next question is, do I put it back in the drawer, or do I let it gather a few more rejections? Now there’s something for you to consider.

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One of the things about futuristic stories is that so many of them are written in the hope that the real future won’t pan out that way! Here’s another BHD micro-peek into the gloom….

Trading Nations

Clearing out the redundant barn he came across a pile of hardboard placards nailed to old fence-posts, netted with cobwebs, padded with mats of dead leaves blown in from the yard. They dated from a time when his father had been young and radical, and had campaigned against air-miles. ‘Support Your Local Farms’ they said in carefully stencilled black letters which had not faded in the cool dry gloom of the old building.

He gathered them up and carried them awkwardly out to where the old man was using the front-loader to push mounds of rubbish and junk into the heart of a huge bonfire.

I guess we won’t be needing these again, he said.

His father, up there in the cab, couldn’t have heard, what with the roaring of the fire and the crackling of the burning timber, but he grimaced momentarily, recognising what his son was throwing to the flames. Old tyres that really should have been taken to the tip were sending up tornados of thick black smoke and orange sparks were flying out and dying against the pale concrete of the yard.

They had just signed over the farm to a company that would take their whole milk production for sale solely overseas, and which had already contracted both the neighbouring farms.  It was a once in a life-time chance, and would make the family secure for a generation.

I’m playing hooky this weekend, so here’s a Sunday short story from about five years ago, that I’m not sure what I ever did with, if anything, or what I might do….

 

Backstories

 

Rose put down the tea cup and reassured herself that they were alone.

The fact is dear, she said, Sylvia needs to be put in her place from time to time.

Marjorie flushed.

Does she?

Well, you must notice, being….Rose stopped herself in time. She had been about to say uneducated, but that wasn’t quite what she meant, besides, it wasn’t entirely true. Unimportant  might seem  rude, and that wasn’t true either, entirely . I mean, she added, she does bang on a bit, doesn’t she?

About what?

Her academic career, that’s what. She’s always reminiscing about her students.

I think she liked them.

Well, perhaps she did. Rose picked up the tea cup, raised it to her lips and realised it was empty. She put it down again.

I shouldn’t have thought that would worry you, Rose, considering.

That me… that Charles and I met at Cambridge?

Yes.

Well. But one doesn’t want to pull rank, does one? Rose delicately pushed her cup and saucer forward a little, and Marjorie poured more tea.

There had been an exchange, in the community shop, between Sylvia and Rose, in which the word ‘redbrick’ had been used. Marjorie hadn’t entirely understood, but she could recognise a put down as well as the next person, even when it didn’t involve home baking. She had poured oil on troubled waters, almost literally, dropping a bottle of extra virgin, which luckily had not smashed.

She had resolved to make sure that Rose and Sylvia did not share stints unless absolutely unavoidable, and she would put Bob in with them as she knew he liked the attendant flirting. Generally, of course, it was not necessary to have two in the shop at the same time, and three was always a pinch, but Bob organised the stock control. He had been an executive and knew about that sort of thing. He was awkward with the actual customers, but with him in the stock room at the back Rose would be reduced to simpering rather than sniping.

I don’t think Sylvia would be upset if you talked more about your old students, Marjorie offered. Rose was remarkably reticent to talk about her university days.

I don’t expect she would, she said.

Milk? Rose nodded a thank you, and Marjorie topped her up. Rose drank daintily, her little finger crooked.

It was surprising, Marjorie thought, how easily Rose had picked up the operations of the till, which all the other volunteers, including Sylvia, had struggled with. She put that down to Cambridge, which, coincidentally, was correct. Yet the image of a younger Rose, seated at the checkout of a supermarket, her bony knees protruding from beneath the hem of a blue overall, her name badge tilted at an acute angle on her prominent bosom, had, unaccountably, popped into Marjorie’s mind from time to time.

We met when Charles and I were both at Cambridge, Rose had announced soon after arriving in the village.

What were you doing there? Marjorie had asked.

Of course, Charles had left school before me and was in his second year when I arrived, she had replied, and then she passed on to complimenting Marjorie on the Dundee cake. Did you make it yourself? Delightful.

Sylvia had taken a different approach.

I used to work with young people, wonderful young people, from all over the world.

What sort of work?

Oh, teaching, you know, that sort of thing.

It had been months before the word university had popped out, and shortly after that Marjorie’s husband had walked in with a battered old textbook he’d found in a local second-hand bookshop, saying, our Sylvia’s a doctor, would you believe?

A doctor?

Not a medical one. She’s a doctor of philosophy. He had handed over the book, splayed open at the front page, with a black and white photograph of a much younger Sylvia peering out.

What a sly old thing you are, Marjorie had said next time they met.

Not as sly as some, Sylvia had replied.

 

 

Here’s Me on the TSS site, writing about Steinbeck’s short story/play Of Mice and Men

Here’s me writing on the TSS site, about Rudyard Kipling’s short story, Mary Postgate.

Stanley Baldwin’s son, apparently, described this as the wickedest story ever written, but was he reading it carefully enough?

My daughter has suggested we should go see the new biopic on Tolkien. We both have our doubts, but what the heck? It will be interesting to see what they want to tell us about him, whether it’s true, false, likely or unlikely.

I’ve read The Lord of the Rings several times, but not for a year or three, and when the Brian Sibley BBC Radio version came out I was an avid listener. I’ve listened to that, all the way through, a couple of times, but not for a decade. That was the adaptation that made me realise how firmly based in the English class system Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings really is, for the radio voices brought out the nuances of those class accents. Even reading the novel, it’s apparent that all the ‘baddies’ have an approximation of working class accents, predominantly, of those Churchill, according to some, called the ‘cor blimeys’. And later in the story Merry and Pippin talk about ‘living on the heights’, and how unfitted for it, long term, are people of their ‘type’.

Behind all that stands the monarchy, and of course the main theme of Tolkien’s great work, is that if you want to fix the body politic, you have to have The Return of the King. And unlike Peter Jackson’s king, he’s not someone who dithers about whether or not he wants to be king, and he’s not someone who wins the kingship by being brave and true and all that sort of heroic stuff. Tolkien’s King has waited, and plotted in hiding for generations of ordinary men, waiting until the time is right for his ‘rightful’ return. He is followed because of who he is, not how he behaves, and we can tell he’s the rightful king, as Ioreth points out, because ‘the hands of the king are the hands of a healer’ – Tolkien’s neat inclusion of that old English mythology, from the days before Oliver Cromwell and ‘stone dead hath no friends’. Worth noting also, perhaps, that it is a myth from a time before any notion of ‘constitutional monarchy’. Tolkien’s King comes by appointment of an unspecified higher authority; the same authority that sends Gandalf ‘back’ from death to complete his task.

What hadn’t struck me in earlier cogitation, but which suddenly seems quite apparent, as I wonder what the new bio-pic will be like, is how similar the story of Aragorn is to that of Bonnie Prince Charlie, save for the outcome of course. So I think I ought to find some time to read the book again in light of that speculation, and perhaps go back also over some of those accounts of the Jacobite return of the king. Ah, a reader’s job is never done…..

The need to write is a curious thing. Phenomena might be a better word, or then again, it might not.

It isn’t success that drives the need, nor even to be seen to be writing. It’s the process, the activity, which demands compliance. The fear of loss of identity is what haunts the failing writer, fearing to give up, finding him, or herself unable to do so.

It’s about the use of language, and the usefulness of language, and the fact that language, as I was once told many decades ago by a visiting professor whose name has long faded from memory, ‘language is the nearest that you can get to the centre of your own consciousness’. I understood it to be true – and memorable – even before I had the vaguest understanding of what it meant. Now I think that language is as much a sense with which we experience the world we live in as are any of the other five senses. Perhaps language is the sixth sense that we all speculate about.

Pick apart what I’ve written here, and you might find yourself thinking, for you, perhaps, but not for me, and that’s what I mean, and what he meant, I think, about words being what we use to create the world we think in.

And that’s why being good or otherwise at using them is really not the point, any more than whether or not we are good at breathing might be, though, like breathing, if we have difficulty with using words, it will be reflected in how easily, or otherwise, we live in the real language.

Just a thought, as I like to add sometimes.

Here’s a link to the second and third place winning stories in the Strands International Flash Fiction competition, Spring 2019:

https://strandspublishers.weebly.com/lit-sphere/lightning

https://strandspublishers.weebly.com/lit-sphere/the-library

BHD’s winning story posted tomorrow (21st April, coincidentally!)

Preparing a workshop session on dialogue in the short story for Darren Harper’s Lit & Phil Society, I deconstructed an Ernest Hemingway story – separating out the narrative from the direct speech (and a few speech tags).

It was an interesting experiment, showing not only that both speech and narrative told a story on their own, and nearly the same story, but also, by highlighting the two elements and putting them back together, the way that they are distributed throughout the piece.

In the case of that story, something like the first third was evenly mixed between the two, the second was predominantly narrative, and the third predominantly direct speech. I reasoned it out that to begin with, Hemingway needed to introduce both, but then needed to develop the situation with brief inputs from the characters. In the final section, by which time context has been well developed, the characters can talk to each other, with brief inputs from the author, to nudge the reader towards significant lines that might just be overlooked.

I also looked at the relative size of the contributions each type made to the whole. In terms of words, narrative took up about two thirds. In terms of space on the page, the two were roughly equal. In terms of time on the voice, when read aloud, perhaps not surprisingly, direct speech was back to a third of the whole. In the image below, speech is red, narrative yellow.

Looking at the highlighted distribution as a thumbnail, rather than as three pages of text, the pattern became more obvious. The different shapes of the two elements is perhaps the most obvious, disguising to some extent the true distribution, for speech tends to be strung out vertically over several half-filled lines, whereas narrative is stretched over fewer full length ones.  I wondered if a similar exercise were to be carried out on another story, if we would get something like a fingerprint for the story that might tell us something useful.

I looked at L.A.G.Strong’s delightful little story The Seal. A little bit longer, but still only 4/5 pages, this oblique analysis of a failing relationship – the woman watches and sings to a seal which is mesmerized by her, until her galumphing, obtuse and insensitive husband clumsily, but unintentionally frightens it away – has almost no direct speech in it…so little, in fact, that it seemed not worthwhile to create that fingerprint.

Yet there was a pattern, albeit a simpler one. There were two lessons to be drawn from the analysis. The first is that even here, the placing of the dialogue is important. It all comes within the last half of the three and a half page story, if we include her direct speech to the seal. The dialogue between the two characters all falls within the last half of that closing half page. Again, it is context created by the rest of the story that enables us to fully appreciate the significance of the words exchanged by the characters. The speech to the seal is more like ‘thinking aloud’, and not really dialogue, but it is direct speech as opposed to narration, being the actual words of the character.

The second lesson is that the distinction can be made between actual words spoken, and actual words thought, and between words actually exchanged with or heard by other characters and words only (but not necessarily merely) brought to the consciousness of a single character (and the reader).

Thoughts lead on to thoughts, and I turned back to a previously considered idea that short stories can veer closer to, or further from scripts, where what little narrative there is becomes stage directions. Writing plays, trying to, I should say, I’ve found scripts can veer towards short stories too, the stage directions becoming more like narrative.

I have written purely direct speech short stories. In one, two characters engage the ‘audience’ across the ‘fourth’ wall, as if it were a third member of their group. In another a group of unspecified number enters a bar and talks about a deceased colleague. None of the speeches is attributed to any specific character, so it up to the reader – or performer – to decide how many voices there are, and what each of them is saying. Some attributions will be obvious, others not so, and as with a musical score, the reader, imagining or performing, has to opt for a defining version. The story is framed by a traditional first person narrative, by the barman, who sees them come in and clears the table after they have left.

For me the issue of direct speech in short stories revolves around the contention that even when it is direct, the speech is being reported by the author’s proxy, the narrator. There is no-one else there! The more a story becomes like a script the harder that contention is to maintain – though it is still true, until you have multiple real narrators – or actors – mouth those spoken words.

There is, I believe, a fundamental difference between a narrator telling you what somebody says, even when that narrator ‘puts on’ what he or she is presenting as the speaker’s voice, and the voice of an actor – who, it seems to me, has for the moment hi-jacked the story from its narrator (and its author). With silent, solitary reading, of course, you imagine both voice, and narrator.

To voice direct speech with actors when a story is read out on radio, or stage, pushes the story into script, with the narrator becoming one of several voices, a quite different interpretation, to the narrator telling the story, and including his or her own version of the direct speakers, a version that is part and parcel of the telling, and which leaves, at least to some extent, the listener still to imagine the character.

Seeing the great disparity between Hemingway’s and Strong’s stories, in the amount of direct speech used, I was reminded of the vital role of the narrator in the telling of a story. The narrator, manipulated by the author, who constructs the story, tells it with an agenda, strongly or weakly implied. That narrator might be hidden or disguised, but even in my narrativeless stories the narrative perspective is there, to be imagined by the reader, or listener. If any ‘showing’ is being done, it is the author who is showing us the narrator at work. The narrator’s objectivity, or otherwise, cannot be taken for granted, nor the author’s.

Here’s another BHD tale from 2017. A couple of elements within it were told to me, one way or another, miles, and years apart. The narrator’s accent is, well, almost wholly spurious…..

 

 

The Sixteen Foot Drain

 Come it old George died, who was Brenda’s cousin on her father’s side, Maisie Wannup rang to let her av the bad news, and to bring her up to date with all as ud bin gowin’ on the family them twenty years past. Maisie always was a precocious beggar.

She’d gone down south long afore that mind, ‘ad Brenda, and then moved herself out west almost as far as Wales, seemed like to Maisie. When George come to the end of his rode, it weren’t on account, as you might be expectin’, of the drink, though he’d been on two bottles a day of Johnny Walker since his dad had died and left him farm, which ‘is missus run, she being the trousers and the brains of the outfit all along.

A course, she was still alive when George put his car, it were only an old Ford Anglia or summat like that in them days, put his car nose first into Sixteen Foot Drain on his way to the Ring o’ Bells, which were his local. How he survived that crash I don’t know, and neither does no-one else I reckon, but he did, and clawed his way up outta water and up bank onto tarmac, and then he walked a mile to Sam Davies’ place who died these ten years gone of cancer of the larynx on account of him smoking. He said to Sam, call you the AA up to come and pull my car out of the Sixteen Foot, which they did, though he’d ‘a bin better off if’n they’d ‘a called t’other AA and got poor bugger dried out. As t’was they took’s licence off him, and arter that he must pedal old push bike three miles each way ‘tween home and Ring o’ Bells, which he must ha’ done best part a twenty years, but he still got his two bottles a Johnny Walker ever’ day.

When his missus passed on he went in a home, though not soon enough some said, and they gev him a bath, and another ever’ week after, aye, and a ‘ot meal too, more an’ one a day. Like a pig in it he were, last couple years o’s life, but he had to do without whisky, and maybe that’s what killed ‘im in end.

Maisie said, well, at least whisky kept ‘im happy all them years, but Brenda, who knew story well enough, she said, don’t it never did, and ‘ad a quaver like in her voice, which Maisie oughta a took notice of. Well, maybe it numbed pain a while, Maisie said, which were like a red rag to a bull, and Brenda said, what pain? He never lost his daddy at four year’s old, no! Nor saw his mother broken hearted for rest of her life.

Brenda’s mum took to drinkin’ too, which Maisie shoulda remembered, but Brenda’s mum were Pimms and Champagne, and she didn’t put no cars in that Sixteen Foot Drain neither.