EQMM has published many prolific short-story writers over the years, most notably Edward D. Hoch, who, in the course of his lifetime, sold more than 900 short stories. A tenth of that number would be a lot by just about anyone’s standards. Among those contributing to EQMM who have hit or passed the hundred mark are the late Donald Olson and, more recently, Brendan DuBois, whose fiction debut was in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in 1986. The latter is also a successful novelist, but one who clearly never lost his love for the short form. His latest EQMM story, “Breaking the Box,” will appear in our September/October double issue. An e-book collection of his stories is currently available through Amazon: See Tales from the Dark Snow. —Janet Hutchings
Gosh, how I do love libraries.
I grew up in Dover, a mill town near the seacoast of New Hampshire, which was fortunate to have a Carnegie library. It was one of those old-style Victorian buildings with lots of brick and stone and turrets, and I literally could spend hours in there, examining the shelves of books and magazines, some of which went back nearly a century. I remember to this day the sweet joy when I first got my adult library card, so I could go upstairs and away from the cluttered children’s room in the basement and enter Adult Land.
To this day, I still love libraries, and one of the things I truly love about libraries now is going out to speak to their patrons. I’ve talked to as many as fifty people at a library, and sometimes only five, but I always find the talks fun and engaging, since the audience is always made up of dedicated readers.
One recurrent theme, however, has been the magnitude of my short story output since I started getting published as a professional. I’m often asked, “So, how many short stories have you had published?” and when I run the number through my head and come up with the current count—which is now nearing 130—I often see shocked expressions on the faces of the audience, like I’ve been caught going through the collection box for overdue fines.
There are two follow-up questions when I toss out that number, the first one always being, “But why so many?”
And I often like to bounce that right back to them: “What makes you think I have a choice?”
Some laughter always results from that snarky reply, but here’s my explanation:
I love to write. Oh, there have been periods where the writing hasn’t gone particularly well, and a few idle times when my fingers feel fat and clumsy on the keyboard, and don’t get me started on the horrors of rewriting for the third —or fourth! or fifth!—time a lengthy novel that I thought was completed.
Yet most days, I’m eager to sit at my desk and get to work. Maybe I’m an outlier in the writing field, maybe not.
But once I started getting my short stories published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and then it’s cross-office rival, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, a revelation came to me, like a midnight lightning strike illuminating a landscape.
With short stories, practically anything is possible.
And that’s when my patient library audience looks at me like I’m one of those kooky and addled writers that they’ve always been warned about.
But let me explain.
When the outline, planning, and research is completed for a novel, and you start Page One, Chapter One, there’s a faint click out there as shackles are delicately snapped about your ankles and wrists. For better or for worse, you are chained for the next six months, eight months, a year, or even more, to that novel. Your point of view, the genre—hardboiled, suspense, thriller, soft-boiled, cozy, random vampires—and everything else, well, that’s been settled. You’re off on a long, long trip, and hopefully, you’ve packed enough grammar and energy to complete the journey.
But short stories . . . ah, such a difference.
I soon learned after getting published that I could let my imagination slip free. I could write from a first-person point of view, or third-person. My narrator could be eight years old. Or eighty. I could write from the perspective of a cop, or a criminal. Heck, after a while—and after growing up one of six boys in a nearly all-male household—I even wrote from a woman’s first-person viewpoint.
It was fun!
It was exciting!
And most importantly . . . it was short!
Meaning that I didn’t have that lengthy and bone-weary commitment that comes from writing a novel. Writing short stories allowed me to experiment, to try different voices and different styles, and write about all sorts of things. And after selling mystery short stories hither and yon—not too sure where yon is, but I’m sure I got a rejection slip from them at one point—I branched out and started selling science fiction, fantasy, and, on one memorable occasion, a Western, complete with horses, revolvers, and a dusty town in late 1890s Texas.
But I always returned to mysteries, for I found that experimenting—and succeeding—in a variety of voices, styles, and types of mysteries, gave me the confidence and knowledge to do the same when it came time to write that novel.
Currently my schedule has me working on a novel in the morning, and a short story in the afternoon. Again, I’m sure I’m an outlier, but I find that when I’m working on that lengthy beast that’s turning into a book, it’s fun and reassuring to step into the world of short stories, and to know that okay, Project A won’t be finished until winter, but at least Project B will be completed next week, and then I can start working on Project B2 (the story, not the vitamin).
So many times I’ve explained this to my eager listeners at libraries throughout my little state, which leads to the second question that gets thrown out there, after I explain my love and addiction to short fiction.
“But where do you get your ideas?”
Oh my, the number of times I’ve been asked that. It’s probably right up there in popularity with, “How can I get an agent?” and “Have you written anything I’ve read?”
But ideas . . . the ideas for novels, and for short stories, and for anything else, are right out there.
If you know how to look. And how to listen.
There’s a railroad that cuts through my town of Exeter, right near the downtown. It used to belong to the old Boston & Maine railroad, and now it belongs to Pan Am Railways. Many times I’ve been out running errands, picking up the mail, or taking our dog Spencer out for a romp, when the crossbars come down and the lights come on, and there comes that deep bellow of a train whistle, warning everyone of its coming approach.
Just the other day, as I sat idly watching the train clatter by, checking out the old boxcars and reading the even older faded names—Maine Central, Southern Serves the South!, Berlin Mills Railway—and scratching my dog’s head, I saw a couple of cars that were marked by graffiti. I’m definitely not a fan of graffiti or tagging or street art or whatever it’s being called these days, but something about the intricate lettering and images just struck me.
Scratched my dog’s head.
I looked at the passing graffiti-covered train cars, saw them as something more than just vandalized objects. I thought of them like an emissary from some urban landscape, where young men and women scrambled about dirty and dangerous rail yards to paint and mark the cars, only to see them disappear as they went all about the country.
And I thought of a young man, or a young woman, stuck in a rural town in upstate Maine, or out in Ohio or North Dakota, a young person with a hunger that they can’t quite identify, and then they see these marked rail cars going by, telling of a different world out there, inviting, dangerous, and seductive . . .
Then the train passed, the bars lifted, and I went on my way.
The idea stuck with me that morning, and when I got home, I just typed a couple of sentences in my Ideas file, and left it for now.
But there’s a story there. I just know it.
A novel? Doubtful. There’s a lot more that would have to be considered and dug out and outlined before I would even consider a novel based on that idea.
But a short story . . .
Because with short stories, anything is possible.
Even if the sweet people in the libraries don’t quite believe you.