Stealing Stories

by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, April 2003
Most Writers Write readers know about my pet writing group Boot Camp (Gridders). Well, Gridders has a mini-incarnation at another writers colony called Scrawl. I hang out there too.

Every Saturday night, Scrawl runs a Flash Fiction meeting. At 9:30 you get your cue, by 10:30 you are supposed to have finished a story and presented it.

This Saturday my story was 1,075 words, edited, spell-checked, and to me at least quite pleasing with a beginning, middle, end and a little bit of thematic weight. The cue had been "Sandbox". Yuck! Do I know anything about sandboxes? Do I want to write about kiddies in a nursery?

Answer, No and NO!

So I have 59 minutes and 40 seconds and no ideas. What can I do? What should I do? I Googled, of course!

I pulled up the Internet, entered Google, typed in "sandbox", pressed enter and hoped. And I got a lot about.. Sandboxes.

True, there was a lawyer's office. Could I write a lawyer story? Dunno. What I know about lawyers you could write on a postcard. Then I saw:
The perfect sandbox is one that draws a crowd of kids all summer and that calls to mind the greatest of all play sites: the beach. What makes the difference between a good sandbox and a bad one? Be sure the site is right. Build it big. Add wide seating. Hide the toys. Cover it well.

The 7 x 10-foot model we built isn't cheap -- about $300 plus sand-but is irresistible to kids and built to last. It features comfy seats, sturdy lids, a toy box and ample elbowroom. Even parents will enjoy, sitting out there, feet propped up as the kids play. You can easily spend less money on our design with a few modifications (see Money-Saving Ideas in the Preliminary Planning section.)
Ah hah. I have a story!

You have a story, Alex? Are you well?

Yes, I have a story.

An American website and a $300 sandbox, sure I got a story. That's a lot of money for something quite trivial. What about the poor kids in the world surviving on a lot less than that a year?

OK, I'm going to somehow compare and contrast a $300 sandbox with poor kids in Africa. Good. STOP! Write this and you'll produce a pile of water-buffalo dung!

Why? Because if you write this, using your head, you'll write propaganda or stuff that's so obvious it won't get under the reader's guard, won't sing.

Oh.

Well I have my image, my gizmo, my prompt, my maguffin. So now I want a real person. So I became a real person, leaving the scene of the story.
The two men drive Tom White in silence. They don't really know what to say. Even though Michael the Hutu student tries to be careful, the Land Rover bounces and leaps in the ruts, throwing Tom's cases, the parcel of books, up, down. Tom barely moves but the pain in his ribs, his strapped arm, shoots through him like a scream.

"I am sorry, Mr. Tom," Michael says.

"Sorry," Bishop Archangel says.

"We're all sorry," Tom says.

The Land Rover scatters dust as it races across the savannah. Distantly they can see the small DC3 that's coming to take Tom White home. They are all so sorry.
I wrote this utterly spontaneously. Let it come out of the gut. Is it real and new? I doubt it. It's probably MASH, Hatari, The African Queen, Born Free, maybe even Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," but it has a hook, a tilt, a question and emotion. I can feel this guy and feel FOR him.

How did he get there? Write a paragraph show him, wife, kids getting ready to go. Boof. Now I know why he's sorry. He's lost the wife and kids. Sad. I didn't know before I started writing. I didn't PLAN it. So it becomes real.

So who is he? How come he's going to Africa? Bung it in.
He had been an engineer, a good one, an irrigation specialist, an alternative technology guru, and forty, going on ninety, when one Massachusetts morning, Michelle Bell tripped up the college steps to a lecture, bumped into crusty Tom White and changed his life forever. Eight weeks later they married. Tom cut his hair, bought a suit, kissed her tiny broken nose, and said "Of course I do!" to a short bald priest with a mole on his chin. For some reason now, through all the pain, Tom sees this mole, this damn, damn, damn, damn ugly mole.
Bingo! He's sad. Well, yes, he started as sad. And when he's thinking about how he got to Africa he focuses on something ugly. He's a good, religious man but now he sees UGLY. I have my theme. He is changed by events. He is leaving Africa and the joy is gone from his life, he sees only ugliness, remembers ugliness. All this has come up from my gut and not been manufactured.

So now I just let him (me) speak.
"Ugly!" he says as the Land Rover bucks towards the airstrip. "Ugly!" and the two dark-skinned men who think of Tom as a friend are hurt because they think he is talking about their home, their country.

They are close to the airstrip, finally on a mile of tarmac. They see the Dakota, turn across the sun, twist, disappear into its light, then drop down towards the ground.



Next question, Tom is leaving Africa, he is sorry and the whole world is sorry. Something happened to his wife and child. Do I need to state it? Do I need to describe it? How would that improve the story and deepen the theme? The point is his deep unhappiness and his rejection of Africa.

I've managed to lose "compare and contrast" got away from formal, obvious thinking. Now the story is hopes cruelly dashed, death, loss and a beautiful world suddenly made ugly.

But do I need to bring back the love side, the lovely side, and what about the sandox? OK, how about:
There had been a time with Michelle, especially when she told Tom they were to be parents, when Tom thought seriously about walking away from the voluntary work, building up his consultancy and making plans for their future. They would probably stop at six boys and a girl, Michelle had said, or six girls and a boy, as long as there was a girl and a boy in there somewhere. "We'll stop," she said with a wink. "Eventually."

And then he brought her to Africa, brought Timmy. The day he decided to help the bishop, they had met at Toys R Us to look at sandboxes. Michelle was in a playful mood.

"The perfect sandbox," she said, grinning, "is one that draws a crowd of kids all summer and that calls to mind the greatest of all play sites: the beach." He had made a face.

"What makes the difference between a good sandbox and a bad one? Be sure the site is right. Build it big. Add wide seating. Hide the toys. Cover it well."

"You'll regret this!" Tom said, but twelve years his junior, she was too quick for him. They never did get the sandbox.
Just by letting things happen, I have all the ingredients I want. So what happens? What happened to the wife and child? Why is everyone so sorry? Well my Google advertisement tells me I should have sand and beach in there somehow.

Got it.
They had been up country three months, almost gone native. Tom was trying to solve a problem with contamination of wells. Michelle and Timmy played down by the river. It was mostly mud, but old mine workings had left a few thousand tons of sand and the children, Tom's, the village kids, they played there, the black ones bare-headed and free, Michelle and Timmy both hatted, and slapped with Factor 50, and deliriously happy.
So now do I tell the reader what happened or merely hint?
There weren't supposed to be crocodiles on that part of the river. Michelle had asked, with a grin, of course, and Tom didn't know, but they saw the village kids playing in the muddy water, running in and out, back across their gifted sand, and when the headman said, "No crocodiles!" to Michael and when the bishop confirmed it, Tom said, "Go ahead and play, but just to be safe, why not stay on the sand?"

He loves his wife, he loves his child, but she's a free spirit, full of life, and he brought them to Africa.

"Yes, boss!" Michelle had said, and then run with Timmy down to the water's edge, flirting with pretend danger before collapsing, giggling, gasping in the sand.
And so Tom has lost his family, his faith, his hopes and dreams, his ability to see Africa as beautiful. How could it be beautiful after what it did to his wife, his baby? He has to go, away from this ugly place.

I can feel everything now.
The plane is gone now. Michael the Hutu student looks at it drone eastwards on its way to Harare. He watches it glide, silver then darker, then black, black, black, against a low, red, beautiful African sun.

It is beautiful, if only Tom White could see it, but when Tom looks, he can only see ugly.
My point in all of this is to learn to find cues for stories anywhere, but when you do, try not to engage your brain. Instead, feel something, engage your heart, access your soul, avoid the trite, the obvious, the expected, the cliché.

I was running with my son, one day. He said (he's full of this sort of thing) "There are more plastic flamingos in the world than real ones."

Logged!

Then while teaching at the Winchester conference I read a story about a barmaid and the writer had likened a barmaid entering a bar as going on stage. Logged! So taken was I that I wrote to the student and asked could I pinch this idea. Somewhere in the distant past I had heard that once tomatoes were thought to be poisonous. So the Flamingos, tomatoes, the barmaid? I had my story, "Tomatoes, Flamingos, Lemmings and Other Interesting Facts", a story which was in The Fish Anthology, has been on Radio Four and reprinted half a dozen times.

But the key to the story was the character, Amy.
I always think, you know, it's like being on stage. You have to look your best. You come in from the wings and there's your audience and straight away, you're in the spotlight, you can't hide, and every night you have to perform, no matter what. You've been short-changed on the maintenance again and the kids need new shoes, maybe it's time of the month and you're feeling shit, but you have to do it, you do, look good for the punters. It's yer job.

I nearly went stripping once, but at the last minute, I bottled out. I thought that being behind a bar would be easier. I've been here for two years, one month, a week and a half; five quid an hour, tips and a conveyor belt of blokes. I think I should've gone stripping.

The lights, you know, it's one kind of glamorous, especially early on in the evening, when the smoke's not too bad and the blokes are still close to being reasonable. When you first come in, you can't smell the beer or the fag-ash. They clean the place with some special stuff that's got a really strong perfume and they've brassed up the taps. For a while, you feel really great.
I had to find the vehicle, the vessel, the person who would embody the feelings, and that was the barmaid herself, someone very real to me, with a distinct voice, someone I could live the story through.

So be aware, but when something grabs you, don't grab at it. Let it float and let a person (more than a character) form in the ether, shimmer and solidify.

My father once used the term "lack of moral fibre" and told me a story about wartime North Africa. That became "Lack of Moral Fibre". When the story came and I knew it was about what is bravery, I had a problem. Talk too directly and it will become a lecture. Resolution? Character! A created a character (a sort of cousin to my Dad) who was expecting to be charged with LMF and is writing to his wife. He is inarticulate. He can barely write and certainly he cannot spell. Now his message, his philosophical take, will not be direct and instructional but implicit and subversive, like all good stories.

"Green Glass" my Buzzwords winner? That came from a chance encounter with the author Thomas E Kennedy who told me of an angry scene where he had crushed a glass in his hand, then years later discovered he still had some glass stuck under the skin.

Just find the character, the voice, the story's tone, the mood, the attitude.
When you say it, finally say it, when you tell her you're leaving, when you finally realise that loving her isn't enough, not if she can bring you so much pain, your anger is so great you crush the wine glass you're holding. You watch as splinters embed in your hand, as a long, wicked shard of dark green glass hooks into the flesh of your thumb, your Mount of Venus, and you watch the blood from your palm, your arm, flow magically red to the floor.

The blood is everywhere, the rug, the drapes, but she laughs at your crucified hand, your slashed wrist. She says, "My, honey, so much drama for such a pathetic little man. Rush yourself to the hospital, why don't you?"
Obviously, angry, bitter, escaping. And something trapped inside? From here, via the vessel, the story just wrote itself!

Learn to be a magnet. Learn to think and see like a writer all the time. One way to make yourself a writer is to write every day, to become a creature of habit. Always carry a book and a pen. I don't carry a notebook, but about 50 of my paperbacks contain scribbles inside. Remember too that when a short you are reading triggers some idea, write it down, NOW, not in an hour, not tonight. Often that fleeting moment dissolves, disappears and you just have this ache. There was something, something.

In another article I mentioned that Dorothea Brande said these insights and connections are not chance. Instead they are leakages of your psyche. Grab them! Because only the soul can generate good stories.

A nickname, Ernie the Egg; a chance remark from a girlfriend, "I'll never be a person, I'll always be 'The Mistress' ," a wish for a magic credit card, a tragic family accident, a workman's homespun philosophy, an embarrassing article on me in a dirty magazine, a sudden memory of when a girl's dress caught on fire, a visit to a photo gallery and sad, sad pictures on a wall -- all these have grabbed my attention while 99% of the world rushes by me. Why? Because they mean something to me.

So I log them, brew them, let them grow, and when they are ready, I find the voice, the vessel, the one-of-me's me to tell the story.

I have to say, though, as we finish, I'm still stuck with the most amazing shout I ever heard, "Who's run off with my seventy-two Wild Swans!?"

But to you, one of you, that means something, doesn't it?

Eat it. Live it. Find the voice. Let it tell the story.

Alex Keegan British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture, Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books) which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.

His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.



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