Hello Darkness, My Old Friend
John Clark on the topic of short stories. Years ago, I was invested in writing full length books when my sister Kate suggested I might be good at writing short stories. She was one of the founders of Level Best Books and, at the time, they were soliciting entries for the second anthology of crime stories by New England writers.
My initial thought to myself was no, I should stick with what I’m doing. However, the longer I thought about it, the more intrigued I became. One of the motivating factors that pushed me across the line was the recurring dream I was having at the time. In it, I had murdered a young woman before getting sober, hid the body and, with a fairly clear head, was now petrified that someone would find her and I’d be busted.
I decided it was worth trying to exorcise this demon by turning it into a story. I did, it was published in the anthology and I never had that dream again. (Too bad the paralyzed in the jungle about to be attacked by cannibal ants and a couple other similarly vivid ones haven’t met the same fate).
Since then, I’ve written a decent number of short stories. Some have been accepted for publication, many have not, but the process of having an idea pop into my head and a day or so later turn into a work that others can enjoy is extremely satisfying.
Writing short stories serves other purposes. At parties or meetings, I often mention that I’m paid to kill people. That gets attention quickly. Depending upon the mood I’m in, or the situation, I string the other person(s) along for a while before clarifying. Very few get upset at the explanation and on occasion, the conversation turns into a new story opportunity.
There are multiple resources for short story ideas, especially mystery and horror (more about that in a moment). The older I get, the less I need to say, but the more I’m willing to listen. Quite honestly, the world is starved for good listeners, just ask any small town librarian. People frequently come there as much for the sense of being heard and recognized, as to check out an item. Since my hearing, especially in crowds, has deteriorated to a point where I have to strain to follow a conversation, I often find myself hearing parts of one and stitching bits of another onto it with delightfully strange results.
The daily newspaper provides more story fodder, particularly the obituaries. I have a morning ritual that starts with fresh coffee and the print edition of The Bangor Daily News. I tend to read at least half the obituaries completely and find some really fascinating stuff that can be woven into a good Maine tale.
Other stories have their germination in something I see while driving. One story I sold to Level Best, Tower Mountain, was inspired by a distant hill sprinkled with communication towers I saw every morning when getting on I-95 in Pittsfield. I took the liberty of moving it north of a scenic lookout on the Airline that overlooks a big bog.
I wrote one inspired by the Nigerian Oil email scam combined with the punch line from one of Tim Sample’s jokes. Another followed Kate and I discovering someone had stolen the flat rock wall our father had spent an entire summer building back in the 1970s, while three were inspired by Pine Grove Cemetery and the cement plant on opposite sides of the road approaching Hartland from the south.
One trend in competitions for anthologies is the requirement to write a story around a featured theme. One such that has been offered on and off for the last few years is The Killer Wore Cranberry. All submissions must feature a thanksgiving dish. I wrote one about a greedy lawyer who screwed his sister and her adult children out of their house and blueberry fields. It wasn’t accepted for this competition, but was included a couple years later in a Level Best anthology called Noir At The Salad Bar.
As my writing has progressed, I’ve realized more of my stories stray into horror than mystery. While the market for such stories isn’t as robust as that for mystery, I like my frequent excursions into the dark side of humanity a lot. Having grown up in a small town on a poultry farm at a time when everyone who did so was going into debt big time, I can easily tap into the sense of desperation and insecurity having little money creates, and can develop characters wounded or driven by that mindset. Likewise, my years of active alcoholism, coupled with going to AA meetings for 39 years also lets me go to the dark side easily.
One intangible aspect of the creative process for me has been finding what I call, for lack of a better description, places of power. Those of you who remember Carlos Castanada’s books about Don Juan, the Yaqui Sorcerer, will understand what I mean. I discovered my first such place of power when I was the library director in Boothbay Harbor. I was writing my first book and every time I was stuck on where to take it, the answer came to me while driving past Edgecomb Pottery.
When we lived in Hartland, my power spot became the kitchen sink. I’d be washing dishes and looking into the back yard when a new story idea would start growing in my head. I was a bit worried when we moved to Waterville, but I have found one that’s a dandy. I have generated half a dozen such ideas while enjoying the 93 degree water in the pool before my morning aquatic exercise class. What better spot could there be.