Excavating Story

Lisa Jackson’s recent blog posting about story length got me thinking about my own complex, exhausting process for writing a short story. I’m curious how other writers do it.

For me the easy part is finding my protagonist. He or she seems to surface from some murky swamp of my unconscious, dripping with demands for a story. Like Eddie Stokes, an aging pickpocket who must ply his larcenous trade one last time, working Salem’s Halloween eve crowds.

The hard part is when the character, in this case Eddie, hands me a shovel, sits back, grins, points to a rough patch of earth, and demands that I do my share of the work. So I begin to dig.

So far, in Eddie’s case, I’ve excavated his big problem—he must risk returning to prison if he is to redeem himself for abandoning his daughter. Still the structure of his story eludes me. How does he change over the course of the story? What choices must he make? Who is his opponent? What does he gain or lose?

Past stories have brought similar difficulties. There is Flo Dembrowski, a feisty homeless woman with a missing front tooth. There is Rose Hernandez, a shy homeless creature who carries a beloved carpet bag in her burn-scarred hands.

In both instances, finding stories for these characters involved intense excavation—digging, discarding, and digging some more. It also required periods of resting and forgetting. Until, finally, their stories emerged.

In the case of Rose, her story turned out to be about a woman tortured by the loss of her child in a fire, who is brought a measure of peace when she helps rescue someone else’s child.

In the case of Flo, her story turned out to be about a woman haunted by guilt for not stopping a gunman from murdering her father. She is buoyed when she gets the chance to stop another murder.

At this moment, Flo and Rose sit under a nearby tree, somewhere behind Eddie, smiling, reminding me that finding his story is worth the sweat. What about your writing process? Is it easy or hard? Fast or slow? Do you start with character or plot?

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About Nancy Gardner

Nancy Gardner’s short stories have been published in magazines, anthologies and online. Currently she’s working on a mystery set in Salem Massachusetts and featuring a present-day Salem witch who uses her ability to walk into the dreams of others to learn their secrets and solve crime.
This entry was posted in Craft, Nancy Gardner, SinCNE, Writers, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Excavating Story

  1. patremick says:

    You ask some great questions, Nancy. My stories also seem to percolate and while I feel an urge to get them down on paper as soon as possible, I find that doesn’t make them go away. I also feel a need to keep returning to add more layers, hopefully making the story richer with each addition. The most disconcerting thing for me is to sometimes get to what I think is the end, and realize it isn’t — that there’s more my characters need to say and do!.

  2. Nancy Gardner says:

    Ah, good point about the layering, Pat. And I really get what you’re saying about arriving at the and finding you’re not done. Thanks for commenting!

  3. edithmaxwell says:

    I find some stories sort of write themselves. I usually have just a kernel of a plot idea and follow it along. But the layers do take time to add, refine, rewrite, polish. One thing I find curious is that almost all my stories are from the point of view of the villain and the motive is almost always revenge. Hmm!

  4. pegjet says:

    I love the idea that a protagonist hands the writer a shovel, sits back, and says “dig.” For me, it’s almost always character. Plot is the part that has me flailing. I’ll go to sleep at night, thinking, “I left Stone on an airplane, Lexi staring at the tree, Mike driving in the desert, Amy paying a meter and Dominic feeding birds.” Some of them, Iknow the plot, I know their character, but I don’t know how to get them from the proverbial point A to point B. Luckily, they are all pretty patient with me–none of them have disappeared yet. 🙂

    This is an interesting post, and an intriguing thought process. It always fascinates me how others perceive their own writing processes.

  5. Lisa Jackson says:

    After taking a moment to think about it, I think most of my stories start with the snapshot of a scene – literally like an image I’ve frozen in time – and then I build from there. If the picture contains a person, then I start developing the character, if it’s a place or thing, I start pulling at strings to narrow in on the location, a lot of times it’s a feeling I get from examining the image – and most of the times I start from some version of ‘scared’ or extremely ‘anxious’.

    I generally jump to the conclusion that this ‘picture’ is the start of the story, but many times it’s actually the last scene, a lot of times it’s somewhere in the middle, but seldom does it turn out to be the start of the story.

    Wow, I think this just helped me with a current WIP! Thanks, Nancy! 🙂

    • Nancy Gardner says:

      Very cool, Lisa, to start with a place that elicits an emotional response! And I’m super-pleased if this helped a bit with your WIP!

  6. Sylvie says:

    For me, to start, it usually takes a constellation of things–an intriguing character, a situation, and another third element that makes me ask, what if? The process of writing itself is a series of layering. Some scenes start with dialogue, others with a place, others with an action. Then I layer until the scene feels/sounds/looks right.

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