Thursday, 20 July 2017

Short and Sweet

The appeal of short stories.

Many, many years ago, when I did O level English Literature, we studied a Shakespeare play, a Victorian novel, a 20th century novel, poems – oh, and a book of short stories. I wasn’t at all impressed with the idea of having to plough through a bunch of short stories. At 16, my idea of a good read was something at least as long as The Lord of the Rings, something so huge that I could disappear into it and not surface for at least a month. Why would anyone want to read a snippet with no meat on it whatsoever?

Years later though, I discovered that it was the short stories that had stuck in my mind and made the deepest impression. Phrases, images and ideas had burned into my brain in ways that Dickens and Orwell failed to achieve. Perhaps it is because they can shine a blinding spotlight on a single moment, thought or character, in ways that a novel, with its elaborate lighting display, cannot.

I enjoy writing short stories. The first piece of work I ever had published was a short story, flattering me into thinking that maybe I could make it as a writer after all. It was The Accountant, which is the first in my collection of short stories, Moments of Consequence.  I have come up with images and ideas that I have toyed with making into novels, before realising that I don’t want to write an entire novel, I just want to concentrate on that one image or idea. Short stories don’t have to fit neatly into a genre, which is wonderfully liberating. My collection includes histories, comedies and tragedies.

But although short stories can occupy a different dimension to lengthy novels, they can also walk beside them. The moment you finish writing a novel, there’s a huge rush of triumphant relief, but that is rapidly followed by a wail of empty desolation. It’s very hard to shut the door on a world you have created, and nail down the coffin of characters you have lived with for months or years. Short stories, I discovered, offer a way of keeping that door open.

Moments of Consequence contains three short stories that stand as companion pieces for my first three novels. I had no wish to write sequels, or create a series, but I did want to dabble a little deeper into the untold stories merely hinted at in the books. So A Time For Silence, which deals with the murder of John Owen, is paired with A Time to Cast Away, which tells of the aunt who brought him up. Motherlove, which includes the story of lost waif and fantasist Lindy, is paired with Hush Hush, a story of Lindy’s lost brother. The Unravelling deals with the desperation and dreaded bogeymen of children’s imaginations, and it is paired with Green Fingers, Black Back, which glances at the same events through the eyes of an adult on the side-lines.

Judith Barrow, author of the Howarth Family Trilogy, shares my love of short stories as a means of keeping our created worlds alive and kicking. She is also holding a workshop on writing short stories at the Narberth Book Fair, 23rd September. Over to Judith.

Thanks Thorne.

Unlike my friend here I cannot for the life in me remember what I studied for O levels. But I do remember writing short stories in school from a very young age (well, they were supposed to be ‘short’. Looking back I remember them going on and on and on because I couldn’t decide on the ending…pity the poor English teachers back then wading through tedious narrative).

I always loved short stories because I could read them quickly and, being a day-dreamer, treasure the instant images they evoked for days afterwards So, from a precious copy of Enid Blyton’s Six O'Clock Tales and stories by Hans Christian Anderson I progressed to such diverse authors as Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Chinua Achebe, and V. S. Naipaul. I’ve enjoyed them all.

And I’ve written and had published short stories in the past, mainly because I didn’t think I’ve be able to hold all the threads of a novel together.

 But thirty-five years ago I became a mature student (by accident but that’s another story) and took an A level in English Literature, then gained a BA degree and then an MA in creative writing.

It was time to face the facts; was I a writer of small tales or could I tackle something longer?

Purely by accident (I’m sensing a theme to my writing career here) I discovered the setting for my trilogy (an industrial  town surrounding a German prisoner of war camp, found by  researching the first POW camp for Germans in the Second Word War).And then a protagonist developed that I couldn’t get out of my head; Mary Howarth.

I’ve lived with the Howarth family for the last seven years.

Which now brings me to the reason Thorne invited me to her blog post. Secrets.

 Like Consequences, Secrets is an anthology of short stories; of the lives of eight minor characters in the Howarth Family Trilogy. When I closed the last page on the prequel, A Hundred Tiny Threads, I felt stunned. What to write next? And then, daydreaming as usual (these days I call it being creative!) some of the characters started shouting at me; I was leaving them behind and they didn’t like it. So I wondered what they would have been like before they came to live in the gritty northern mill town of Ashford. In Secrets are the stories of their earlier lives; the secrets they carry with them.

 So, Edith Jagger, the nosey gossiping next-door neighbour to the Howarths, holds close her secret of being a young abused wife and the desperate measures she took to escape.

And Stan Green, the publican of the local pub, The Crown, desperate to leave home at fourteen, signs up for the army with his friend, Ernie, unaware of the horrors that face them in the First World War and the terrible consequences of their decision.

And then there is Gwyneth Griffiths, Mary’s quiet and helpful neighbour in Llamroth, Wales, whose whole life has been on the run from an abusive husband.

And more: Hannah Booth, Doreen Whittaker, Alun Thomas, Hilda Lewis.
 All have secrets - for you to discover.

If you'd like to dabble in our short stories, find them here.

Secrets               Moments of Consequence

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