Our writing instructor gave us homework — write about something inside something else. Hmm. Intriguing, I thought. On my drive home, I considered typical scenarios: inside a car, a box, a drawer, all places which could be enclosed. But the longer I drove the further my imagination traveled. What about something inside my stomach, my dog, the blue bird house next to the driveway as I arrived home? It wasn't until I sat down next to my husband that the final inspiration hit: inside the sofa!
As a child, my younger brothers and I competed over the scavenging of items left beneath sofa cushions, okay, competed over the loose change we would discover, an expected find in every household. But when you grow up in a family of six children that also meant bits of crackers or chocolate chip cookies and the occasional toy solider. I chose the items my protagonist found to shape the character and habits of his deceased friend.
He loved his snacks (potato chips, pretzels, and skittles.)
He was older or maybe farsighted (broken reading glasses.)
He was definitely a man at ease and comfortable in his home (1 lost gray sock.)
But I needed the ‘treasure,’ the unexpected find to keep the reader wanting more. I thought about the narrator – a man’s man who felt such loss when his buddy died but was unable to share those feelings with anyone, not even his wife. What could be so different for this man to find that it would surprise him and the reader?
A pink dry cleaner’s slip with the words ‘ball gown’ scribbled on it popped into my head and I knew I had the perfect twist to finish my story.
Find out more in my short story collection, A Blue Moon & Other Murmurs of the Heart available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Memory is tricky. Neural pathways and other structures of the brain become activated during emotionally-charged experiences especially if a person’s life is in danger. We remember those events more clearly than others to survive going forward. Sometimes, though, the brain puts aside memories too difficult to bear at least for a time.
When my mother began experiencing memory changes, my father would often repeat the words, “She’s not the woman I married.” At the time, I heard them as a slight against my mother, often shutting down the conversation by replying, “Well, neither are you, Dad.” But during one visit I recall being in the garage alone with my father when he said the same words, and instead of shutting him down, I said, “It must be hard.”
With that response, I opened a window onto a world I would never have seen had I refused to look through it. How he felt his wife drifting away one memory at a time; how he lost his companion, his confidant, and how he mourned her bit by bit each day. That conversation sparked the story, Broken Glass, which I tried writing and revising for nearly four years. I always knew the point of view would be from the grandson; he was the voice I heard telling me the story of a man he loved and admired.
The first critique of the story happened at Doe Branch Ink where it was suggested I tell his story as an adult reflecting back. I resisted. In the end, I took the advice and revised it. Still, the new version also was problematic — I was told straight out that Jewish families would not keep the secrets which Grandpa Max kept. Again, I resisted. But then, when I tilted the advice and heard it differently, I figured out what happened and revised the story once again.
The truth of the final version included in “A Blue Moon & Other Murmurs of the Heart” was validated when I went to a reading by Peter Stein of his recent memoir, “A Boy's Journey: From Nazi-Occupied Prague to Freedom in America.”
My advice to other writers? Listen to what your readers find off-center about the story you’ve written but keep steadfast to the voice of your protagonist who knows the story you’re trying to tell.
I selected a few of my published stories to combine with several unpublished ones for this collection. As I sorted through them, I noticed similarities. If you read the book, you’ll see how my Catholic upbringing has influenced my writing and how aspects of it slipped into more than one story. Perhaps that explains why I tend to dream up characters who struggle with doing the right thing when the right thing is SO hard. I also gravitate toward characters who aren’t especially likable. Author Lee Zacharias said during her recent book tour that “The novel is no place for the perfect life.”
I think the short story is the place for an imperfect person.
I’ve always been interested in the what inspired a story and then the history of its revisions until it became the story a writer wanted to tell. For me, sometimes circumstances and past memories munged together and became something I never expected it to be. That was the case with my story Type A Little Faster. I read an online writing prompt just those four words -- Type a Little Faster. And like any writer given a prompt, my curiosity went wild.
Well, who’s typing?
Why does she have to type faster, is she too slow?
Is she in a time-crunch?
Does she have to get home to feed the cat, her baby, her elderly father?
Is there a bomb that’s going to go off if she doesn’t type faster?
And is it a she? Maybe it’s a he…a high school boy? Or an assistant to the mayor? Someone applying for a typing job? Who?? Who is it??
And who’s yelling to type faster?? A boss? Her MOM!!!
Or…are those words in the typist’s own head?
For crying out loud, what's going on?
You can see how four words can explode a writer’s head and activate her creativity. Eventually, I answered all those questions in my story, Type A Little Faster. What I didn’t realize until after writing the final draft, was how much of my own life experience I’d written into it. As a young girl, I had been taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph until 7th grade when a male teacher joined the faculty. Every day he arrived in a suit and tie and wore fragrant cologne that filled the air of his classroom. He held himself as if he had mastered the world. I think he was all of 28 years old at the time. I was 13 going on 14. During that year, because of my interactions with him, I think I felt respected for the first time; someone who listened to what I had to say and who encouraged me to believe in myself. The character in my story has similar qualities but in the end instead of leaving the girl more confident, he leaves her feeling ashamed and disillusioned. I realized after writing the story how fortunate I had been.
As a reader, I've always enjoyed attending an author’s book reading, fascinated by the story of how the wandering wisp of an idea turns into a well-developed plot with quirky, flawed and fleshed out characters.
As a writer, I’m inspired in countless ways. Maybe I’ll observe a mannerism or quirk of someone I know or some stranger. Like the way a woman stiffly holds her well-manicured fingers and extends her hand outwards as if she’s not used to having long nails.
Or I’ll overhear bits of conversation which stir up all manner of thought. For example, I listened in while a woman sitting at a nearby table confided in her friend that her boyfriend “moves his car from zone to zone every day at work. He can’t commit.” I would’ve laughed, but then she would have known I was eavesdropping. Or the guy standing in line at the grocery store who told his buddy that he thought “she was pretty but then she kept talking.”
A photograph or a written prompt might also lead to a new story, or in the case of Hot Dog, in my short story collection, A Blue Moon & Other Murmurs of the Heart, the inspiration came from two very different sources.
One morning while I was at Oak Island beach I watched the waves moving in and out across the surf and noticed a piece of drift wood being tossed up onto the sand, and then pulled back again into the water. The size and shape of the wood reminded me of a hot dog and I wondered if someone had tossed it from their boat. But then I wondered if it really was a hot dog, and mentally sorted through the possibilities of what else it could be. You’ll see in my story, what I eventually decided.
A week later, I woke one morning thinking about the name Sally Bruekner. I didn’t know anyone by that name, checked out the name online and found no reason for her to be in my dreams. Although I already had the first draft to Hot Dog, I decided to use her name and created a new character. She quickly morphed into Special Agent Sally Bruekner who took center stage in this unusual tale.
Once inspired with the germ of an idea, I spend time daydreaming, visually staging scenes for each character and their actions through their day. I grew up watching movies when television stations scheduled Saturday matinee movies. Big film stars on small screens. (Thank you, Audrey Hepburn, Maureen O’Hara, Ingrid Bergman and other women for imparting life lessons.)
After writing the first draft, I usually put it away for a week or more, and then start a series of revisions looking for place to add or subtract sections or elements that don’t fit or are inconsistent. I do recommend hiring a copy editor after you believe you’ve found everything that needs to be changed. Recently, for example, I started a story with my character wearing a dress, only to shift a paragraph later to the mention of her low cut blouse. Never noticed the inconsistency myself, thank goodness for Roberta Trahan.
Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share the back story of the stories in my recently released short story collection, A Blue Moon & Other Murmurs of the Heart. I hope you’ll enjoy finding out the inspiration for each one.