To be honest, getting ideas isn’t really a problem. I’ve just been reading Penelope Lively’s very enjoyable Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time, partly a memoir, partly reflections on old age, partly about writing. She says at one point that her stories have often been inspired by places and I’ve found that too. I think there is something about seeing new places, about visiting as a stranger, that sets one free from one’s everyday concerns and makes one wonder ‘what if . . .’ I have set stories in the Guggenheim Museum in Venice, the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, in a cathedral (inspired by a holiday staying in Salisbury Cathedral close), in an acquarium inspired by a visit to the London Acquarium. And when I say ‘in an acquarium’ I do mean in it: the story is narrated by a fish. So, travelling is great for ideas. So are newspapers: I’ve got four or five box files full of clippings. One way and another I have probably got enough ideas to last for the rest of my writing life. That’s not the hard bit. It’s knowing what to do with them when you’ve got them.
And that is where the magic comes in. Because a plot can’t be worked out as puzzle in logic, or not entirely. I’m writing a short story at the moment and a few days ago I couldn’t think how it would end exactly. I put it aside for a while. I woke up early the next morning and lying in bed, the end of the story began to write itself in my head. The work had been done somewhere below the surface and came floating up when I was in a receptive state. The best advice on how to get into that state is in Dorothea Brande’s classic Becoming a Writer. Go for a walk, have a bath, engage in ‘wordless pursuits’ like going to concerts or exhibitions or knitting. Travelling by train is great, I find, to get ideas flowing.
So getting ideas isn’t really a problem. But finding the time to turn them into stories, that’s another matter . . .
I’d almost finished browsing in the charity shop last Saturday, when my eye was caught by a title on display on the top shelf, THE MAN WHO HATED BANKS AND OTHER MYSTERIES. I reached up for it and was delighted to see that it was a collection of stories by a favourite writer, Michael Gilbert. The price was £7.99, a bit steep for a charity shop paperback, so I guessed that it was a pretty rare book – and when I looked it up on Abebooks, I found I was right. But I didn’t buy it as a collector’s item, I bought it for the pleasure of reading a whole bunch of Michael Gilbert’s short stories that I hadn’t read before. And it was a very timely acquisition as the illness of a close friend has meant that I’ve been making a number of long train journeys recently, and this was exactly the sort of reading that I needed. I didn’t want something demanding or something that I wasn’t a hundred per cent sure that I would enjoy. I wanted encounters with old friends and that is exactly what I got. Gilbert’s first novel came out in 1947 and this collection, published by the estimable Crippen and Landru, was published in 1997 in honour of his fifty years as a writer. These are all stories featuring policemen or lawyers who appeared in his novels, Petrella, Hazlerigg, Bohun, and Mercer, written throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Gilbert caught the tail-end of the golden age of the short story and what is remarkable is the enviable number of different publications that these stories appeared in: JOHN BULL, ARGOSY, THE EVENING STANDARD, REVEILLE, and others. All gone now, except THE EVENING STANDARD – and how long is it since that published short stories? – and that wonderful survivor, ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE. But now that short stories are available online I am wondering if the possibilities of the e-reader could herald a resurgence in short fiction and novellas, which print publishers have been loath to take on in the past.I hope so.
A few blogs ago I mentioned that I’d written a short story about a surgeon who had murdered his mistress. Well it’s been accepted by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I love this magazine (of course!). They have just published another short story of mine, ‘A Tour of the Tower’ in their March/April issue. I only wish there was somewhere similar to place short stories in the UK. it’s a form that I very much enjoy. A short story provides a welcome change of pace from a novel and its rewards are more immediate. It can be a thrill to find oneself rubbing shoulders with writers who are far more distinguished than oneself. My very first short story was published in a CWA anthology along with writers whose work I’d long admired: Michael Gilbert, Reginald Hill, John Harvey. I could hardly believe it.
If I had to pick a favourite crime short story it would have to be ‘A Jury of her Peers’ by Susan Glaspell, first written in 1917, though stories by G.K, Chesterton and Conan Doyle would run it close. Although it is set in a vividly realised time and place, It hasn’t dated and I can give it no higher accolade than to say I wish I could write something as good one day. I often reread it as a masterclass in psychological insight and narrative control.
I’m delighted to say that I’ve just had a short story accepted by the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It’s set me thinking about the form. There are not many modern writers who devote themselves exclusively to it, though one who did, Edward D. Hoch, wrote over 900 and famously published one in every copy of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine for 34 years. Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore are best known for their short stories and there are other writers, like John Updike, who are as well regarded for their short stories as for their novels. Generally speaking though publishers are reluctant to publish collections of short stories and if it is difficult to make a living as a novelist (and it is!) then it is even harder if all you write is short stories. It didn’t use to be the case: the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were a golden age in that respect, think of the Strand Magazine and Sherlock Holmes. And it’s a pity because a well-crafted short story can be deeply satisfying for both reader and writer. It is possible to do things in a short story – for instance, write from an unusual viewpoint or sustain a particular tone – that might grow tiresome or be too difficult to pull off over length of a novel. The short story of mine that EQMM has accepted is set in the years following the Gunpowder plot in the early seventeenth century. I’ve never written any historical fiction before, but didn’t feel too daunted when it was a matter of a short sprint rather than a marathon.
The Strand has recently been revived, by the way, and is published in the US, where they seem more receptive to the short story as a form.