Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Story Not My Own

Zoë Sharp

The short story, as a separate form of writing in itself, has increasingly come to intrigue me. I was never an instinctive short story writer. My first forays into fiction were novels rather than vignettes. But now I have come to really appreciate the freedom of imagination that is encouraged by the short story.

small can be beautiful
A subject, character, or location that would be difficult to sustain for the length of a novel becomes far more achievable in truncated form. Not that I insist on having visited everywhere I write about in my books—although I do try, it isn’t always possible. Parts of the Middle East where I wanted to set part of my latest book, for instance, were simply not practical for travel, however, fascinated I might have been to go there.

The best you can do is look at as many images as you can of the locations you want to use, and to read a lot of nonfiction by people who lived or worked in those countries. I find in particular that books written by non-natives are the most instructive. Unless you want to tell your story from the perspective of a local, then you need an outsider’s view.

As is always the case, the fewer words you can use to get across a flavour of a place, the better. The short story does not allow the luxury of waffle, and that helps you to be concise. Always a snapshot, not a portrait.

I’ve written short stories about subjects that were too complex for me to easily use for a novel without a huge amount of research beforehand. The mechanics of virtual reality for one. If I’d intended to make it the mainstay of the plot of a novel, I would have spent considerable time reading into this amazing field of rapidly expanding technology. As it was, I didn’t have the word allowance to go into it in any depth. A hint of the process was all that was needed.

One of the hardest things, I think, is to get inside the head of someone from another culture to your own—to write from their point of view. Changing age and gender I have never found a problem when it comes to my narrators, but getting not just the dialogue but also the thought patterns authentic for an American, Australian, or European, is much more difficult.

And then we come to my current challenge—writing a story that is partly somebody else’s. Last year I was asked by editors Les Klinger and Laurie R King to contribute to FOR THE SAKE OF THE GAME, an anthology of stories inspired by Sherlock Holmes and the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

As Les explained, “We are not asking for ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories (though you can write one if you want!) Rather, we are asking you to be inspired by the Holmes stories. You might revisit an existing Holmes story from a different perspective or imagine a character who imitates Holmes or place one of the Holmes menagerie at the center of the story. You can write a Victorian tale or a tale of the far future. You can write about a detective or villain who resembles someone in a Holmes story or who admires Holmes or is inspired by a Holmes story to commit a crime or solve a case. In short, you can do anything you want, so long as there is some visible (or deducible) connection to the Sherlock Holmes Canon.”

These instructions give both the freedom I enjoy about short stories, but also a certain amount of restriction that always makes life interesting. The worst thing, I often find, is being asked to write a story about “Oh, anything you like.” But, being asked to include, in some inventive manner, a man with a wooden leg, or a green rabbit, or to use a provided opening line, really gets the creative juices flowing.

I was once asked to judge a crime short story competition in Lancaster, and set the opening line of:

‘I always swore that, if ever I came back to Lancaster again, I’d kill him/her/them.’

It was very interesting to see what the entrants did with that opening line. Some of them clearly wrote a story to suit, and others just clearly grafted the line onto an existing tale, slightly modified to fit, with varying degrees of success.

But back to Sherlock Holmes.

There is plenty to choose from—Conan Doyle wrote four novels and more than fifty stories featuring Holmes and Watson, quite apart from the option of adding one of Conan Doyle’s characters into a new story altogether. The Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman incarnation, Sherlock, has shown how effectively Conan Doyle’s work can be brought into modern times.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock
So, I knew I wanted to write a modern story, and the one that sprang to mind was THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, mainly because it revolves around the protection of Sir Henry Baskerville from the demonic hound that is the curse of his family. What better starting point for a tale involving Charlie Fox, than a man in need of a bodyguard?

cover of the First Edition, originally serialised in The Strand between 1901 and 1902
Of course, it would have been too simple to just swap out Holmes and Watson for Charlie. So I went at this from an entirely different angle, working up one of the subplots into my main storyline. And yes, Charlie does get to sit down to breakfast with Sherlock himself.

But if you want to know more than that, you’re going got have to wait for the anthology …

What are your feelings on short stories? Do you like to read them? Do you enjoy writing them? Do you prefer some kind of themed anthologies or a free-for-all?

This week’s Word of the Week is Cynophobia, which is the fear of dogs, and particularly of stray dogs. On Dartmoor, perhaps?

Upcoming events:

Crime comes to the Lancashire coast at the end of this month, with the inaugural Morecambe & Vice event at the Winter Gardens, from September 29th to October 1st. I’m honoured to be appearing on the ‘Local Legends: I Did It My Way’ panel at 10:15am on Saturday, September 30th, moderated by Kevin Wignall and featuring AS Chambers, Beth Jones and myself.

the Winter Gardens, Morecambe
I’ll also be taking part in Noir @ The Bar at the Winter Gardens on Friday evening, September 29th29th, from 6pm-7pm, where some of the attending authors will be reading out three-minutes bites of their work.

And next month, of course, there’s Bouchercon in Toronto, but more of that at a later date.


  1. I find short stories fascinating both to read and to write. I think the first one we've done which was 'themed' was around a tuba. Amazing what happens when you throw a tuba into a tense social situation. The second was around a journey to an unusual place, which was for the next CWA collection. We chose the Otter Trail - a wonderful hike along the eastern Cape coast in South Africa. It was unusual for us in that the idea of the story and the setting were pretty well simultaneous. No Kubu in either of these though. Not written yet, but the next themed collection is on Kubu's December holiday. Hmm...
    I HAVE to read CF meeting SH. Please let me know when I can get our hands on the anthology.
    Thanks for the interesting post, and looking forward to seeing you at Bouchercon!

    1. Thank you, Michael. And what was the title of the tuba anthology? I can imagine the ingenuity it must have taken to weave that into the plot. I understand the CWA asked its members some time ago for the strangest methods they'd used to kill off characters in their novels. The one that sticks in my mind was 'death by euphonium'.

      And yes, I'll be sure to make lots of noise when FOR THE SAKE OF THE GAME is published.

  2. Richard dragged himself over five thousand miles from Budapest to Sabina, Ohio, where his mother lay on her deathbed. The last mile was the hardest.

    "Would you like me to ready you a story?" he asked.

    She rolled her head to look at her prodigal son, and said, "At this point in my life, it'd best be a short story."

    Those were her final words.

    [The anthology sounds fascinating!]

    1. That is indeed a very short story, EvKa. Reminds me of the origin of the phrase 'short shrift', which was a much condensed final prayer the way to the gallows to relieve the condemned man of his sins.

  3. I, too, had shied away from short story writing, then did one for Tim Hallinan's SHAKEN benefiting tsunami victims, another for Annamaria and Michael Stanley's SUNSHINE NOIR, and recently one for Diane DiBiasie's (of Poisoned Pen Press) BOUND BY MYSTERY. All were intense, and all were a lot harder than turning out the same number of words for a novel, and all were fun. I may do more, some even under my own name.

    1. Tim is such a nice guy you just can't say no to him, can you? And SHAKEN was such a wonderful idea. SUNSHINE NOIR has some stellar entries, too! I daresay after events of the last week, there may be quite a lot more sunshine noir on its way.

      I agree they are harder to write, pound for pound. It uses a different set of writing muscles -- like being a sprinter as opposed to a marathon runner.

  4. What fun, Zoë. Yes, please tell us when we can read short Charlie.

    I have written two short stories: my first published crime fiction (in Queens Noir) and one for Sunshine Noir. I find them daunting in the extreme. The characters keep trying to escape into a novel. I have a terrible time reining them in. But I do really enjoy reading short fiction, especially anthologies with a theme. I love seeing how different voices and imaginations handle the setting or the circumstances that the theme dictates

    1. Thank you, Annamaria. I'm really looking forward to the anthology coming out, but mainly so I can read everyone else's contributions!

      Yes, the characters do try to escape their restrictions, but it's often a great place to try out a new character before committing them to a longer work. I've doing edits on a book which features a protag who made her first appearance in a short story.