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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.

 

 

When I had Leukaemia the haematologist made an interesting comment about how we label diseases. We could, he said, refer to the one I had as a cancer of the bone marrow. It all depended on whether you were labelling it for the similarities with other diseases, or the differences from them.

That’s a useful idea for a writer, and perhaps for a reader. Short stories, for example, must have that something in common with each other that makes us want to attach that label to them. It’s a something we might spend a long time trying to identify and put its own label on, but we know it’s there. Perhaps it’s a single quality, perhaps a particular combination. We instinctively recognise a long story as being either a long short story, or as being a short novel. We might even confuse ourselves a little with that ill-defined shape-shifter, the novella. Only yesterday, at a poetry symposium in Carlisle, the issue of defining flash fictions came up, in relation to prose poems (whatever they are). It wasn’t illuminating.

Digging down, or zooming in (or metaphor of your choice) we can also identify sub-types of short story, in fact of stories in general, and two of them might be, those written as first person narratives, and those not so. There is also a genre of first person accounts that we would think of a stories, but which are not fictions. But how different are they from fictional first person accounts?

It’s not as if one has an author and the other does not. It might not be so different even, from the perspective of the author’s connection to the events in the story. Many a fictional tale – to my knowledge – includes the description and evocation of events and feelings that were actually experienced, or perhaps witnessed by the author and which have been re-ordered, moulded and mixed in with other events from elsewhere and other times.

It’s not about factual accounts or fictional ones having different trajectories, in fact, we might argue that fictional accounts often follow the trajectories of real life as part of their striving for credibility.

And authors of fact, writing in the first person, can often be just as committed to giving a particular slant to the account of a sequence of events, and to the motivations of the characters involved in them as any fiction writer might want to be. Fiction writers, on the other hand, might be taken by surprise at the way their stories develop, just as we in our real lives might be surprised at what pops up next in our own, real stories (see first sentence -Bhdandme).

Reading a first person memoir of a fifties childhood recently, I was struck by a sense of the author not realising quite what had been said. Written as a fond memory of time past, it came over, to me at least, as a devastating critique of the blind-spots and prejudices of those times.

A few years back at popular TV sit-com inserted a real-life charity appeal into one of its shows, causing a flutter of varying responses in the audience. This ranged from enthusiastic approbation to outrage. I can remember feeling uneasy that some sort of line had been crossed, a taboo broken. It wasn’t that the charity in question was in some way undesirable, quite the opposite in fact, yet I had the sense that something had been transgressed by the inclusion in an otherwise light-hearted, but insightful fiction.

Perhaps, though, both that incident, and the response to it, give us a clue about the real difference between the factual and the fictional first person narrative, and it might have nothing to do with the writer, or indeed the writing. Rather, the distinction could be in the mind of the reader, who feels that the invitation being made is different in the case of a memoir to that of a fictional story. However realistic the fiction, however fanciful the memoir, we are being asked to do some different in the two cases when we are asked to read them.

In the case of fiction, in addition to that ‘suspension of disbelief’ we are being asked to speculate and imagine; in the factual account we will understand, and perhaps, inevitably, judge. In fictions we look for and find truths. In facts, we know deceptions and authorial self-deceptions, are hidden.

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?

Now we have Brindley Hallam Dennis’s story published in Lit Sphere: https://strandspublishers.weebly.com/lit-sphere/ex

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!)

BHD’s little story, Ex ended up on the shortlist in the Strands International Flash Fiction Competition: a six horse finish, with three prizes! At 499 words, excluding the title, it only just squeezes into the competition’s max word count.

I wrote it as a sample piece while teaching a Ghost Story course for Darren Harper’s Phil & Lit Society in Carlisle (England, just). It wasn’t a course I expected to teach, and wouldn’t have thought of doing, but when I looked into the back catalogue I did find I had written several in the genre, some of which had been published.

There was a rub. All of them had turned, irretrievably, and seemingly of their own accords, into comic pieces. Liars League took two: First Foot, which was rather Gothly dark, but not Grand Guignol by any means, and The Hotel Entrance, the heavy emphasis to underline the joke on the last syllable. That title came out of the weak joke, that on the basis of signage, Hotel Entrance is the most popular hotel name in the country! Insubstantiality (with a long sub-title), is just plain silly, and all three pop-up, or materialise perhaps, in the 2016 collection, Other Stories & Rosie Wreay.

A comic ghost story, though, isn’t to my mind, really a ghost story. It’s a comic story. So I thought I ought to have a go at one that didn’t go the way of the others. I’d been reading Kipling (as you may have gathered from recent posts on this blog), and one story that I particularly liked was ‘They’. The speech marks are his. Whether or not it had any influence I’ll leave others to decide, but one of the elements about that story which I rather liked, was the ghostliness of the children, and in particular, the way that they haunted, rather than actually appeared in the story. There was also something about the back-story. It too was ghostly, and even more so than the children. So much so, that I’ve devoted a couple of thousand words to it elsewhere.

Another Ghost story that I’d been reading, and in fact read to the workshop group, was Matt Plass’s Next to Godliness, which appeared in The Fiction Desk New Ghost Stories II. If you get the chance to read it, do! I’ll not do a spoiler here, but it carries a surprise, and builds to a powerfully poignant ending on the back of it. I’ve written about that story too, in The Silent Life Within.

In my little ghost story, Ex, the intention was to get some of that Kiplingesque ghostliness into it: to make what is never explicitly stated the core of the story, with only two or three words to hint at the back-story, the hints, if taken, giving the explanation to what is actually going on. Of course, authorial intent, as I’ve often pointed out, has only a tenuous connection to the actual reading of a piece.

Curiously, perhaps, it seems that the stories of mine that get anywhere, are often the ones that have been written to find out if I can do something specific in the writing, rather than the ones that are centred on actually trying to say something….which might seem to undermine my generally held belief that what readers are interested in is what stories are about, rather than how they are written. (of course, competitions are usually judged by writers, rather than readers….)

Oh, btw, Ex won the first prize and will be published by Strands in the not-too-distant future.

I recently watched the last few episodes of the 1980s Granada TV series, Brideshead Revisiuted. The locations are superb, and so is the acting; the music, sensational, the costumes convincing. I can’t imagine anybody making such a slow and luxurious piece of storytelling in these fractious days. Yet once again, I found myself thinking that I what I liked most about it was the voice overs by Jeremy Irons. I confess I haven’t read the novel from which it was adapted, though it’s on my list, but I suspect that verbal storytelling is lifted closely from the original text. Even if it isn’t, it works as well, and perhaps better than the shown story.

Yet the telling is a performance in its own right. Another reading, in a different voice by another person would have been a different telling.

Voice overs, I’ve read, are thought to ‘kill’ the audio-visual movie, but perhaps it’s more that they overwhelm it, when the telling is done so beautifully. I’m sure I’ve blooged before about this adaptation, and I think I was concentrating on the sea-crossing episode, in which the whole thing is largely a voice over affair, but what this viewing reminded me was that the voice over, though intermittent, is continual throughout the piece, and without it, though the action and location and dialogue would still show us a story, much of the pointing would be absent. The tone of voice in which a story is told acts like the so-called ‘incidental’ music, which of course, rather than being incidental is central to nudging our responses in the intended direction.

I got to thinking in the half hour of contemplation that followed my viewing, about what Waugh’s story was actually trying to communicate. Rightly or wrongly, it seemed to me, that in this adaptation at least, that message was bound up with Marchmain’s death-bed conversion. Even more so than the consequences that follow from it, that making of the cross in extremis seemed to the point of the whole story, and if it had been a short story, I suspect it might have ended there, with Julia’s decision not to marry Ryder being implied and with reaction, both at the time and retrospectively being left to our speculation.

As it was the adaptation ran on, as novels often do, beyond the crisis of the story. Short stories, of course, run on after the crisis of the action, but usually to a scene, our understanding of which is, at least in part, contextualised by that crisis. The crisis or turning point is not in itself what the story is about, so much as is the reaction to, or consequence of it. But here, in the adaptation of Brideshead, for me at any rate, that was not the case. Waugh’s story was being taken to show, I think, the validity of the death bed reversion.

Perhaps the book will leave a different impression….