Short stories take a lot of time and work. They come slowly. Sometimes the idea that seemed so bright and shiny-new turns dull and the story dies. Another idea comes along and we start again. Same process, same amount of time and work.
But sometimes…Sometimes we get a “given”. A story that comes to you complete and writes itself in your head and your fingers have to scrabble to keep up with it. It’s a rare occurrence, but when it happens–what a joy!
I’ve only had two of these in my writing life, but both of them turned into stories that sold and one of them went on to become a novel.
Coffee, Snacks, Worms had its birth one day when I was driving along a dusty Ontario highway, on my way to a school visit. It was a hot, sunny day. I was daydreaming along the road when I suddenly saw a billboard propped up in front of a grubby service station. Tired tires were stacked in piles to one side of the dilapidated building. Heat shimmered up off the tarmac.
COFFEE, SNACKS, WORMS, the billboard proclaimed.
I grinned at the vision the sign conjured up, seeing myself walking in and ordering a coffee, a chocolate bar, and a juicy bowl of worms. Then I forgot it. I thought.
The school was one that brought in students from long distances away. Some of the students faced an hour-long bus ride each way every day.
“What do you do on the bus all that time?” I asked during our workshop. “Homework?”
Snorts of derision. Then one girl, who had been quiet up until then, said “I plot stories.”
And in that instant Kate was born. A girl who lived in a grubby service station just like the one I had passed. Her father was an alcoholic, her mother a passive victim. Her life was grim. So grim that she had found a way out. She made up stories. At home, at school, on the bus–she lived most of her life in her head in stories about the incredible Stephanie, who was as unlike her as possible. Beautiful, prone to dangerous and exciting situations, but always, with a toss of her wild, untameable mane of hair, triumphant. Kate’s friends sometime had to give her a push off the bus at her stop, so deep in her fantasizing she was. Reality had no place in Kate’s world.
Until Mike turned up.
“I’ve got a knife. Give me all the money in the register.”
Kate’s character Stephanie had never been threatened with a knife. Kate didn’t know anything about knives. Still half in her fantasy world, she didn’t react the way she was supposed to.
“What kind of a knife?” she asked. She felt it was something she should know.
Perplexed, the would-be thief stuttered out, “A sharp knife. You don’t want to find out how sharp…”
My short story, Coffee, Snacks, Worms wrote itself. But Kate had taken hold of me and some years later, with a lot more work and planning, I turned the story into a novel, THIRTEENTH CHILD , so that I could find out what happened to her.
My other “given” happened to me one day when my 5-year old granddaughter was visiting. We had inherited a crabby old cat, who deeply distrusted children. I was working in my office and heard Jessica and my husband, Jim, in the bedroom. There seemed to be something interesting going on, so I left my desk and poked my head in. My husband was on his hands and knees, entreating the cat, who had holed up under the bed.
“Come on, kitty kat, come on out. Jessica loves cats. She won’t hurt you,” he was cajoling, with no success.
Jessica was standing beside him, arms folded. With the wisdom of a child, she said, “You can’t rush a cat, Granddaddy.”
I rushed back to my room and wrote, all in one fell swoop, my one and only picture book: YOU CAN’T RUSH A CAT .
I am still waiting for another “given” to fall out of the sky. In the meantime I’m writing the usual way.