Thursday, 15 January 2009

SUSAN PRICE: Short Stories

I was on the cross-trainer at the gym, listening to music on my little zen-stone, when a song prompted a short story to drop into my head.

I find it's like that with short stories. Putting a novel together takes an age. You research the background, come up with characters, name them (always difficult), invent histories for them, thrash out a plot, change the plot, change the characters, start again... A novel, for me anyway, is constructed over months, even years – bashed together from odd bits and pieces. I always think of a full length book as being 'under construction' or 'up on the stocks'.

A short story tends to arrive almost complete. I suppose that's because it's short. Often there's no need even to name the characters. I may not know the exact words I'm going to frame it in, but I have the whole span of the story, its mood, its imagery, sometimes even the way it's going to be told – in the first person, say, or in a series of short, disconnected scenes.

I'm usually aware of a novel putting itself together. I remember the initial idea, I know when I decided to include this character, and that incident. I remember deciding to drop that whole section, and the reasons why. But a short story often seems to have come from nowhere. One moment I'm sweating on the cross-trainer, thinking of nothing in particular – the next second, there's a story. And it does seem as if some inner light-bulb has illuminated the inside of my head.

When I sit down to write the story, there's a lot of hard concentration and revision – this isn't automatic writing I'm talking about – but the work focusses on the arrangement of words in a sentence, or to what degree I can pare the narrative down before it becomes incomprehensible. With a novel the work covers a far wider range – research, say, or the sheer logistics of getting character B to a particular place, at a particular time, so s/he can encounter character D.

I suppose I'm saying that, for me, a novel is about plotting and a short story is about language. (I keep saying 'for me' because I'm very aware that it might be different for another writer).

I can clearly remember the arrival of some stories. I was watching the film 'Silent Tongue', in which a simpleton boy, played by River Phoenix, is mourning his dead wife, an Indian squaw. Her body, wrapped in a blanket, has been lodged in a tree, for the birds to pick clean. The boy, unable to understand that she is dead, sits under the tree, on guard, driving the birds away with shots from his rifle. The woman's ghost appears to him, haranguing him for keeping her tied to her body – she can't travel on to the other world until her body has disappeared.

My head is so stuffed with old stories and songs that they leak out of my ears. As I watched this part of the film, the words of the old ballad leaped into my head: 'Who lies weeping on my grave and will not let me sleep?' I was seized with the idea of writing my own version of this old song. I pared it down to almost nothing but dialogue, and then realised that I could make the title work as well. I called it 'Overheard In A Graveyard', and so was able to cut all description or even mention of the setting. The finished story is told entirely in dialogue. The two voices aren't even given genders – they could be male and female, or both male, or both female. You decide.

'What is Longing made of, that it never wears out?
Bone breaks. Rock wears away to sand. In this dark rain, hard iron falls to rust.
Razors blunt. But Longing's edge still cuts deep... '

Published by Hodder in my book, 'NightComers'
The whole story can be read on my website at

I used a similar title for 'Overheard In A Museum', (unpublished as yet) which came when I fulfilled a childhood ambition to visit the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, and stood beside the Gokstad ship. The museum is within sight and sound of the Oslo Fjord, where the ship must once have sailed:

'When the doors of the hall open, I smell the sea. I hear it. The pulse of the long-felled oak runs through me, and I feel the sea rush past and under me, and I surge forward to climb the wave. But I never move. I shall never more move...

The most surprising arrival of a story was during the SAS conference last year. My colleague Katherine Roberts (author of I AM THE GREAT HORSE), headed a collage workshop. Under Katherine's instruction, we first had to fix in our minds the kind of story we wanted to write, or the writing problem we wanted to solve. Then we whiffled quickly, at random, through a pile of magazines and, without thinking, ripped out any image or words that caught our attention. After a few minutes of this, we had to look through our bits of paper, and arrange them on a larger sheet to form a collage.

There were about ten professional writers in that room, with glue and paper, and tongues sticking out between teeth. It was, for an SAS conference, a rare few minutes of intense, absorbed silence.

Collages finished, we each had to speak about our own for a few minutes. I had known from the outset that I wanted to write a ghost story. I had chosen a large photograph of a wild moorland area. Over it I had glued a headline that had grabbed my eye: 'Buried in an Unmarked Grave'. There was a photo of a street of old terraced houses, and a dark, dirty flight of steps. But when I had to talk about the collage, I couldn't say much. I said I felt that the flight of steps led down into the underworld, and that someone was buried 'in an unmarked grave' on the moorland, and 'nane shall ken whaur they have gane'. Another colleague, Celia Rees (author of SOVAY), said that it reminded her of a famous murder case.

And then we went for lunch. My room was near where we'd been working, and I tossed the collage on my bed, and sped off to the refectory, for an hour or so of the usual lively SAS chat. I forgot all about the collage, but when I came back to my room at the end of the afternoon, there it was on the bed. The instant I looked at it, Celia's comment and my own thoughts came together and the story 'Carla' was in my head – the characters, the incidents, the mood, the way I would tell it.

I wrote the story about four months ago, and am still tinkering with it, but on the whole, it pleases me well enough. It's unpublished, but I've added it to a collection of new stories that I'm slowly building up, and which may be published one day. (I met my agent today and she told me to send her my stories, as she has a possible sale in mind).

I'll add this latest story to it, when I've written it, if it's any good at all. The song I was listening to on the cross-trainer? 'Cruel Mother' by June Tabor -

She leaned her back against a thorn
All alone and so lonely
And there she has her babies borne
All in the green woods of ivy

She took a knife both long and sharp
All alone and so lonely
And pierced it through each tender heart...
All in the green woods of ivy...


Paul Lamb said...

I wish my short stories came so easily. Generally, I only get a part of the story: a character, a setting, a situation. It can take months and even years before the rest of it finally falls into place in my head (and that I recognize it as such). It's the same with novel-length story ideas, and that process takes an age, as you say.

adele said...

Completely fascinating, Susan and that last song really does bring up the goosebumps. I for one can't wait for a collection of your short stories. The treadmill stuff rather impresses me as well!

Anne Rooney said...

wow! I want to read the stories too, Susan. I agree - short stories spring fully formed as nuggets that just need some shaping - often when I'm walking or cycling, so exercise seems to have something to do with it for me, too.

This was also all rather spooky as I've spent the morning trying to work out the details of ghost story which is set on a wide, bleak beach in Norfolk (and re-reading 'Oh, Whistle and I will come to you, lad' to get the feel of the place). I think I might go and buy the saturday papers so I can cut them up and try that collage thingy :-)

Lucy Coats said...

That was a fantastically inspiring post, Susan. I shall immediately go to your website and read. I shall also seek out June Tabor. I have to say, cross-training is my worst nightmare, so I shall give that one a miss--despite the obvious literary benefits.

Katherine Langrish said...

I want to read this too...