The Ideas Secret

What is it to write stories? How do you come up with them? Is there any secret?

No. You just have to wait and listen. Every minute of the day there’s a million things passing through your brain and if you’re ready and listening it’s not hard to catch hold of the tail of a story and just reel it in.

I don’t sit and plan, I don’t think hard with sweat and blood of something I want to say and then hack out a scenario to fit; no. I just feel around for a few words to start and then push the ball off the top of the hill. The story does the rest.

For example, Chemistry was just a couple of words that came to me as I walked up Wittenham Clumps: ‘The second time he came…’. I knew this wasn’t enough so I added ‘…I was ready.’ to finish off the first sentence. That was plenty to get me started when I sat down on a bench overlooking the woods of the Clumps. That suggested the forest location and the rest was just one word following another.

Last night a story passed through my brain as I was lying in bed. I couldn’t sleep too well and so I thought I’d just have a little play with some words, the beginnings. The beginning is always the best bit of composing. It’s just getting a feeling and a flow. If you get the beginning right then the rest tends to follow.

In terms of inspirational habits – I don’t think it is a case of inspiration. It’s a case of relaxing and opening your mind. Never go hunting for a story: you might catch one, but you’ll probably have to kill it first. Walking is very good, as is any exercise. Going somewhere else is very refreshing. I wrote a lot in Egypt, for example. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever written a story just sitting at my computer. That’s where having a little typewriter like the AlphaSmart Neo comes in very handy. Last night Snowcat came to me in a state of relaxation; after lying in the darkness, after reading a little fiction, after eating a little dark chocolate. Did these things help? Probably, but they’re not necessary.

Snowcat

‘The Snowcat!’
I didn’t see a damn thing, but she seemed pretty convinced.
‘I saw him! The Snowcat – over there – I did!’
‘OK honey, just keep hold of my hand, it’s slippery out here.’
I scanned the ground quickly for paw prints, but you don’t see paw prints of the Snowcat.
‘I saw him, I saw him! Let’s go!’ You could hardly tell the ground from the sky, everything was so white and grainy, like an old black and white TV on the static channel after the shut down. But I guess Ellie had sharper eyes than I did.
‘Which way’d he go honey?’
‘Thatta way!’ Her paw thrust out in her red mittens, out into the snowscape over there, towards the forest. The light was beginning to gloom, ready to play tricks on the eyes. It was only about four o’clock but already the horizon was submerging into the ground. They’d be no sunset tonight.
‘We’ll just walk a little way, OK?’
‘Aw! I wanna track Snowcat properly! You promised!’
‘Yes I know I promised, but that was this morning. It’s getting late now.’

We’d been walking the snow fields around the cabin for about four hours now, she never got tired. This was one game she never got tired of. Every year since my father, her grandfather, told her the story of the Snowcat about six Christmases ago, she’d wake up too early on Boxing Day morning and go running into dad’s room, yelling, ‘Granpa, Granpa, wake up – it’s time to go Snowcat tracking!’ And off they’d go, all wrapped up in new mitttens and coats and boots with a pack of left-over turkey and they’d traipse around the snow fields and the forest for hours until she got tired. Then they’d come home as the sun was going down, totally exhausted, and she’d fall asleep with a mug of hot chocolate, listening to dad’s stories about the Snowcat. This was the first year without Granpa, so I was conscripted as tracker. I wasn’t surprised, but today we’d not seen any sign of the elusive Snowcat – until now.

‘Please mommy! Please let’s track the Snowcat properly!’
I looked warily at the horizon, at the few flakes drifting down and at my daughter, her lower lip red from the cold. If I turned around I could just see the sun disappearing through the clouds over the town and, up ahead, the light of the moon filtered weakly over the forest of the Snowcat.

‘OK honey, but we’ll track him just to the forest and that’s it, your father will be wondering what’s happened to us.’
She gave a little yelp and dragged me off in the direction of the invisible tracks.

I had been worried about how it would be without dad to lead this mischievous wild goose chase. Ellie was always so excited about tracking the Snowcat, it was all she would talk about for weeks before Christmas and all she would talk about for weeks afterwards. She had been getting increasingly desperate as the day wore on without any sight of the Snowcat, without my father to help her. But she was a persistent little madam and we kept on through the snow, searching the ground for the invisible tracks. As we tracked him, she recited the story of the Snowcat, word for word, as she’d memorised it from dad.

‘The Snowcat is a very rare beast. He sleeps all year round tucked in the hollow of a tree – except for one day a year and one day only. He only wakes up when he hears the laughter of the little boys and girls – but it’s got to be loud and clear, not just any old laughter. You can’t fool the Snowcat!’ She shouted the last bit happily, like he’d always done.
‘And what’s the day that all the little boys and girls are laughing? Why it’s Boxing Day of course! That’s the day when all the little boys and girls are let out to play with the presents they got for Christmas. So the Snowcat walks the earth on just this one day of the year and he’s almost invisible because his coat is so so white and snowy that he just blends right into the ground and the snow. And the Snowcat doesn’t leave any footprints at all because his feet don’t melt the snow because he treads so softly, like a snowflake. That’s why he’s called the Snowcat.’
She looked up to check I was still listening. I smiled and squeezed her hand.
‘The Snowcat walks all around the town and the fields – no one sees him and no one hears him because everybody is so happy playing and having fun and his tracks are invisible and his coat blends in with the snow. He listens to all the little boys and girls laughing and playing and then, when the sun goes down, he goes back to his hollow tree to sleep the rest of the year. And – I forgot a bit! – And he’s got huge ears, like trumpets, and they soak up all the laughter so that he dreams happy dreams all year when he’s sleeping!’
Her arms swung happily, swinging mine almost out of their sockets.
‘So if you track him before he disappears into the hollow tree – if you can track him with his invisible footsteps and his camouflage coat – then he will share all the laughter with you and you’ll only dream happy dreams for a whole year!’

She finished triumphantly just as we reached the edge of the forest. I looked nervously ahead. The forest was dark now, completely dark. There was no way we’d be able to get in and out without a torch. I sighed.
‘Come on Ellie, it’s too dark now. We can’t go in without a torch.’
‘No! We’ve got to! Granpa would let me! We always tracked the Snowcat right to his hollow tree and I always had happy dreams afterwards – we’ve got to – otherwise I’ll have nightmares!’
I sighed again. There’d never been such a cat. It was just a story my father made up to entertain her. And now with him gone…the memory was painful.
She tailed off, ‘Granpa would let me…’

I turned around and looked back across the fields. There was something very gloomy and grey and fuzzy about the scene. Just a barren snow field and a few shapes that must have been hedgerows underneath the snow and the vague traces of telephone wires against the grey fluttery sky. And way back there, beyond the furthest hedgerow, the town and our cabin on the very outskirts of that. You could just see the faintest little trickle of smoke escaping from the chimney. John must be sitting there, in front of the fire. Maybe dozing, maybe watching an old movie on TV, maybe reading. I felt the little hand in mine – not tugging, but an urgency, an energy, an impulse. I turned back.
‘OK honey, just five minutes, just for granpa.’
‘Yay!’ And she tugged away down into the path of the forest.

The frozen leaves crunched and crackled under our footsteps – a different kind of crunch to the deep snow that we’d covered over the fields. A twigletty crackle.
‘I see him up ahead! He waited for us – good Snowcat!’ I still couldn’t see a thing. My eyes were just getting used to the new gloom of the forest, but Ellie was surging ahead, following whatever her eyes imagined for us.
‘Look mom – can’t you see? Up there, by the old tree with the burn mark!’
I knew the tree, but couldn’t see a thing. There were no tracks, but then there wouldn’t be. I couldn’t even hear a sound in the muffled snowscape.

He was always telling the tallest stories, my father, always playing around, always making something out of nothing. The smallest little trip would have to be an adventure. You couldn’t just have a quiet family walk – it would turn into the great escape from a jail house or hunting down a Russian spy – or tracking the Snowcat at Christmas time. In truth it was annoying and embarrassing for me growing up as a kid. It might sound great fun, but he used to do it all the time, every little thing would get his treatment and it used to wear us down, me and my mother. I remember once – I must have been having a teenage temper tantrum – we were just out doing the shopping and he was trying to turn it into a secret mission to gather ingredients for a nuclear bomb and it just got too much. I dropped the basket right there in the middle of the shop and shouted at him – ‘Stop it! This is not a munitions store, this food is not depleted uranium, this is not the Second World War and you are not General Eisenhower – I am not your toy!’ And I stormed right out of that shop while my poor dad had to decide whether to pick the broken eggs up from the floor or come after me.

There was a squeal from beside me –
‘Look – there!’
I turned my eyes up from the snow.
The moon was shining a narrow beam of light through the trees and there, with his front paws resting on a big gnarled root of the hollow tree, was the most beautiful cat I ever imagined. My breath caught in my throat – he was the purest white – I can’t describe it. His coat was made of the finest snowflakes that have ever fallen – made with the purest water from the purest stream. He had huge ears, like…like trumpets, alert, listening to our heart beats. He was so still and watchful, the air turning to ice with the warmth of his breath. My heart was pounding and I felt the little hand in mine, hot and alive. Ellie and me and the Snowcat stared at each other – it was only a few seconds – until a cloud passed over the moon and the apparition was gone.

Chemistry

The second time he came, I was ready. I raised my wooden staff above my shoulder and I waited. I couldn’t see him of course, but I knew exactly where he was, what sounds matched what movements, the precise creak on the wooden boards as he moved closer towards me across the bridge.

The darkness was complete – but it would have been even at noon, under these trees. He was nearly fifty yards away, but I heard every movement as clear as night. The trees seemed to trap the sounds and pull them down to my ears. I’d stamped out the fire and the smoke was drifting across, towards the bridge, towards the approaching figure. He knew nothing, that was his mistake. He knew nothing of his future and he misunderstood his past, like she had before him. Was that why I was doing this? I don’t think so, I didn’t choose this – it’s sort of forced upon me by the decisions other people make – hapless decisions to move forward unknowingly, unthinkingly – like little bugs creeping along a branch into the web of a spider.

The first time he came, we were still friends. He bounced over the boards of the bridge like a simple kid.
‘Nick!’ He shouted, lifting up some sort of a package, wrapped in greaseproof paper. ‘I’ve brought some hash beef, here, we can cook it up.’
We settled down over the camp fire in this clearing I’d made in the middle of this gloomy old forest, where the wood scarcely ever got dry enough for tinder. Luckily, I’d brought some little sticks and things with me from the edge of the forest, where the late summer sun still beat down on the ancient bark.

By the light of the fire we brought out my ma’s old skillet and set about making up the dinner. After a while, with the hash beef browning in the pan and a kettle of water boiling up among the flames, we ran out of things to do and sat back, waiting.
‘She won’t be long,’ he said.
‘No,’ I replied. He was looking into the fire. I broke up one of the big logs with my staff. It made a little burst of red hot sparks.
‘We’d better take the beef off the heat just a touch, so it’s not burnt for her.’ John slid the skillet off the heat just a fraction. That wouldn’t do anything.
‘I wonder what she’s found,’ he said. I didn’t say anything, just prodded my staff into the fire a bit. By now the beef was beginning to lose any moisture it had to begin with so I took it off the heat altogether.
‘We might as well eat ours. There’s no point in it going cold.’ John didn’t agree, but took the plate I passed him.
‘I bet she’s caught up picking blackberries or something.’
‘Probably,’ I say.

The forest wrapped around us, in cedar silence. There was just the silence of the creak a little way off through the trees, running under the rough old boards of the bridge. This was my new home and I was happy to share it with pretty much the only people I’d liked at college. John was my room-mate from way back and now he’d got together with Susie things couldn’t have been rosier for them. I was doing fine too; I’d spent the summer camped out somewhere along the river, moving along slowly for a change of air every few weeks. But now it was nearly autumn and I needed somewhere a bit cosier, with a bit more cover from the October rains that hurl down in this part of the country. So I moved to the forest. From here I couldn’t even see the sky and, like I said, the sun barely made its way through the tall tall trees. But that didn’t bother me. When it rained I felt hardly a drop and the tarp I used was more for privacy than cover. Not that I needed too much privacy in these parts. I hadn’t seen a soul since July – apart from John and Susie of course.

I’d picked them up from Forgotten Creak railway station just two days before. When I say pick them up – I didn’t have a wagon or anything, I just walked right up to the station and we walked right back down the six miles or so with all our bags and gear and everything on our backs. I carried Susie’s stuff of course. We had an understanding, me and Susie, that John didn’t get. Don’t get me wrong, John’s a great guy, but he’s not very – subtle, do you know what I mean? Well me and Susie were walking up ahead, catching up on the good times, and John was crawling away down behind us, scrambling on the stony path. Me and Susie flew on up ahead – me because I knew the path like the back of my hand and Susie because she was high on seeing me and didn’t have any bags to carry. After about four miles I could see John was struggling. The sun was beating down still in this dog-end of summer and he was looking pretty red and sore. But I didn’t stop, I kept on walking – even faster if anything, with Susie by my side.

I’d met John almost by accident in fact. We were both in the same chemistry class at college. Not that either of us were studying chemistry, it was just a cool subject back then. We liked messing around in the labs, with free access to all kinds of fun chemicals. When I say by accident, we were both called up by the professor at the time and asked to take part in an experiment together. I don’t know why the professor picked on us, maybe because we were the oddest pair going, but he made us put on all the chemistry gear, all the eye glasses and lab coats and everything and took us down to the quad. He said it was going to be a pretty dangerous experiment – for one of us. He told us that one of us was going to set the other one on fire. I know – he must have been some kind of sadist or something. But we went along with it. As you can imagine, that was a pretty awkward moment. No one wants to be set on fire, but you don’t want to be the one who sets some poor guy on fire yourself, do you? I was lucky John was chosen with me. After a little moment of silence he said ‘Alright, you set me on fire.’ You can imagine my relief. Anyway, it turns out that this sadist’s told the whole damn college that there’s going to be some kind of a show and they’re all looking out from the windows all around the quad, looking out on the student whose going to be set on fire.

Don’t ask me how he did it – I wasn’t a chemistry major, remember – but he made John strip right off, with just a pair of shorts and a stupid looking net hat that was meant to protect his face. He looked like a naturist bee-keeper to be honest. Then the chemistry professor gave me some real plain looking gel. It could have been for your hair piece, you know? I guess this is why he needed another student to do the experiment; he could have been accused of molestation, rubbing this gel all over another student’s naked body. So there’s John in the middle of the quad with all the students hanging out of the windows, hooting and hollering, stark naked covered in this flammable gel. Me and the professor have retreated to a safe distance and he hands me a box of matches. I can’t believe it’s this crude you know. That’s why I reckon he was a sadist. I’ve got to open the box, strike the match and throw it at this poor kid who I hardly know, just some small town sophomore who thought he’d do a bit of chemistry to broaden his mind. Course the first match broke and the second one got lost in the wind, by which time John’s beginning to look a little grey. Third time lucky though and I’ve never seen anything like it.

As you can imagine that bonded us pretty closely and we ended up rooming together for a year, well, it was almost a year. Just around exam time I met a girl, Susie, who was always hanging around the labs. She told me about the day I’d set John on fire and how brilliant it had been and we kind of had a thing going. I told you we always had something that other people didn’t understand, a kind of chemistry. Anyway, it didn’t last and it’s not as though I was sore about it or anything, it was kind of inevitable that it wouldn’t last. I was too complicated I suppose. She wanted something a bit more dependable, someone who would take one for the team. Someone like John, that poor son of a bitch who volunteered to be a human torch. So like I said, after that summer me and John stopped rooming together. I went and lived in a tent just off campus for a while and eventually John and Susie got together.

It was kind of with my blessing to be honest. Neither of them ever really made a move. Susie kept coming out to my tent trying to talk to me, trying to make my come in and live on campus. Eventually I had to move camp without telling her before she finally got the hint. And John I saw between classes sometimes – junior year you can’t take electives any more, it all gets pretty serious. You know – I can’t remember what he did any more? English literature? Art history? some such crap anyway. So they got together and our lives went in separate directions. I think I came out the better. But then everyone would say that, wouldn’t they? I never really saw them again until Susie sent a postcard to my ma saying they’d got married and about how they’d love to come and see me during their honeymoon, for old times sake. I don’t know how they got ma’s address, she doesn’t even live there any more – it was forwarded on.

So that was that. They came down here to Forgotten Creek and I came down to pick them up, although it was hardly picking them up and then we’re sitting around eating and taking and they’re going off into their tent at night and I’m retreating to my tarp and that’s all there is. Then tonight, their last night, she disappears and me and John are just sitting eating beef hash in the silence with the trees all around and not a sound. She’s gone off for some scavenger food – blackberries she saw or something. And then he gets worried and all of a sudden he gets up and goes looking for her and then he’s coming back over the bridge for the second time and I’m ready and waiting.

How long is a short story?

My latest short story, Perched, is only about 850 words long. Yet I have put it into the Short Story section of my site – is this correct? How long is a short story?

So, to settle the matter with some hard statistics, I decided to interrogate my favourite short story writers: Ernest Hemingway and, firstly, Naguib Mahfouz.

From The Time and the Place (1991), we have:

  • Zaabalawi: approximately 5600 words, based on 400 words per page
  • The Conjurer Made Off with the Dish: 3600 words
  • The Answer is No: 1600 words
  • The Time and the Place: 3600 words
  • Blessed Night: 3600 words
  • The Ditch: 2600 words
  • Half a Day: 1600 words
  • The Tavern of the Black Cat: 4000 words
  • The Lawsuit: 2200 words
  • The Empty Cafe: 3600 words
  • A Day for Saying Goodbye: 3600 words
  • By a Person Unknown: 6200 words
  • The Man and the Other Man: 2800 words
  • The Wasteland: 3600 words
  • The Norwegian Rat: 2600 words
  • His Majesty: 1200 words
  • Fear: 4400 words
  • At the Bus Stop: 3200 words
  • A Fugitive from Justice: 3400 words
  • A Long-Term Plan: 3200 words

That’s 20 stories at an average length of about 3300 words per story. The range is from 1200 to 6200 words, but you can see the vast majority land in the 3200-3600 range.

Now for Hemingway. From In Our Time:

  • Indian Camp: approximately 1225 words, based on 350 words per page
  • The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife: 1050 words
  • The End of Something: 1050 words
  • The Three-Day Blow: 3150 words
  • The Battler: 3150 words
  • A Very Short Story: 700 words
  • Soldier’s Home: 2450 words
  • The Revolutionist: 350 words
  • Mr and Mrs Elliot: 1225 words
  • Cat in the Rain: 1050 words
  • Out of Season: 2100 words
  • Cross-Country Snow: 1925 words
  • My Old Man: 4200 words
  • Big Two-Hearted River: I: 3125 words
  • Big Two-Hearted River: II: 3150 words
  • L’Envoi: 150 words

That’s 16 stories at an average length of about 1900 words. The range is from just 150 to 4200 words, with most hovering around 1000-1200 mark.

So I don’t know what we can take from that, except that short stories can be anything from a few hundred to several thousand words long. It also seems that different writers feel comfortable at different lengths for their stories. Mahfouz’s short stories tend to be three times as long as Hemingway’s, but you wouldn’t say that one is preferable to the other.

I am pleased to note that my story, at over 800 words long, is longer than three of the Hemingway collection. So I shall be keeping it in the short story section because it feels like a short story.

Perched

A crowd had gathered. I couldn’t see why at first so I moved closer. They seemed to be gathering about a tree. Of course a crowd standing around a tree is nothing to do with me, but I moved closer anyway. There were about ten or fifteen people, pointing and – not shouting – but raising their voices at the tree’s upper boughs. There didn’t seem to be anything unusual about the tree, there were branches and the branches had boughs and the boughs had leaves, which were just turning the colour of autumn, but none had yet fallen. It seemed a perfectly ordinary tree, with bark and little growths of lichen. But there it was: a crowd, pointing and raising their voices at a tree.

It’s nothing to do with me, but I moved to the edge of the crowd. There was nothing unusual I could see about the crowd either. They seemed to be people just like me, with clothes on their backs and rings on their fingers, with handkerchiefs in their pockets and some with ties about their necks. One woman in particular, wearing a head scarf, was pointing high up into the tree and almost shouting. I followed her finger and saw a tree with leaves and boughs and branches, with bark and with lichen and a man in a bowler hat.

He was perched high up in the tree with his fingers curled around the branch like a bird. He was frozen still, but his muscles were taut as if he was about to fly away. Which of course he wasn’t, because, aside from being a man in a bowler hat perched in a tree, he looked perfectly normal. In fact, I found my hand nervously moving to my own bowler, as if my choice of headgear might bring association with this most odd fellow.

The crowd, as I said, were not shouting, but were speaking in raised, almost coaxing, voices to the man in the bowler hat. Perhaps this was what made him look slightly tense. He seemed to want to make the flight, but was nervous of his ability; a nestling, needing a push. I noticed that the woman in the headscarf was also wearing an apron. She held a wooden spoon in her right hand and, as I said, was pointing at the man.
‘What are you doing bird man? Get back to work! Stop wasting our time! Come down and we’ll forget the whole thing!’

For the first time since I got there, the man in the bowler hat moved. With a quick shuffle he edged a little further along the bough, which shook it’s leaves. One or two may have floated down on to the heads of the crowd.
‘Come on,’ the woman with the wooden spoon was speaking again. ‘There’s nowhere for you to go, bird man! Come back down – you can have the rest of the day off – I’m sure the office won’t mind.’

This provoked no discernible reaction from the man in the bowler hat in the tree. And it was nothing to do with me, but the woman in the apron spoke again.
‘We’ve called your wife – she won’t be impressed at all. She’ll leave you for sure if she finds you sitting up in a tree when you should be at work! And what would your children think?’

The woman in the headscarf shook her wooded spoon and the crowd rumbled. The bird man flicked his eyes over to me, I’m sure. There was an awful look in them. an awful pleading. I couldn’t look back, it was painful, so I just looked down. It’s nothing to do with me anyway, a man in a bowler hat in a tree. The woman in the apron with the wooden spoon raised it still higher.
‘If you won’t come down, bird man, we’ll bring you down!’

And with that she bent down and picked up a stone. It was just a small stone, but she was accurate. The bird man made a funny noise that could have been a squawk, but couldn’t have been because men in bowler hats don’t squawk, not even when they are in trees. A few more stones flew from the hands of the crowd. Some hit, some didn’t. The bird man flapped his arms in defence and his branch lurched. A few leaves floated to the ground.

The woman with the apron seemed unimpressed with her ballistics and directed the crowd to the tree trunk itself.
‘We’ll shake him down!’

Well, there’s nothing for me in a crowd looking at a man in a bowler hat in a tree. It’s nothing to do with me. I thought I should walk away, so I did. I felt the crowd surge forward. From behind me I heard the rumble of a tree, the heavy rustle of boughs and the light falling of leaves. Then an inhuman squawk, a loud thud and a cheer. It’s nothing to do with me, a man in a bowler hat in a tree.