Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sussing Out the Secrets to a Short Story

I spoke to a friend earlier this week and mentioned his absence at the Moniack Mhor inspired weekly writing classes. Discovering that it was all about short stories, characters, settings and so on, he declared that he had been there, done it, bought the T-shirt and written numerous stories. Come to think of it, so have I, but it didn’t stop me.

We began with creating a character. Claire gave us a list of things and we set to the task. I like my man Ivan. He’s not a remarkable character, but once placed in a setting and given something to talk about, he became interesting. It seems that he has the potential to feature in a series of stories according to the folks around the table.

Not allowed to simply read through the list, we were to imagine finding a bag, and the contents of the bag would reveal the character.  Some people described the bag in detail and there was always something in the bag that made people go “Ah”.

The bag was resting against a wall beside the bus stop. It was just a plastic carrier with a supermarket logo in primary colours. A quick look around, an empty road, no returning person.

There was an elaborate Mother’s Day card poking out of the top of the bag. A huge vase of flowers covered the front with purple petals picked out in soft cardboard, and a sprinkling of glitter. There was nothing subtle about it – purchased for a mother most definitely loved.

A bag of bird feed nestled next to the card. It was from the farm and poultry shop on the other side of town. Not your usual peanuts or suet balls. Something for hens perhaps? Maybe he kept hens. But no. There was a home-made looking magazine printed on cheap paper with the title “The Pigeon Fancier”. In a police station the same sort of thing might have had pictures of local criminals, but these pages were filled with photographs of pigeons, artfully posed, eying the camera, feathers smoothed and oiled.

I warned you that he wasn’t a remarkable person. At the end of the road where I live there is a man with a shed full of pigeons. There are quite few other birds that settle on the roof of his house and along the wooden fence. It has a feel about it like visitor’s time in a prison, chatting through the bars.

The next task was to write a setting. My man Ivan disliked anything to do with football – so I took him out of his comfort zone and into a football stadium.  I have been to one or two games. We were asked to work through the different senses in describing the place. The first time I went to see a live game we were way up in the top seats. The players were like ants. I hadn’t realised how much I needed the commentary that TV provides. They didn’t tell you who had the ball, who they passed it to, who fouled them, who took the free kick – all the essential stuff.

Dialogue was next on the list.  Claire was looking for a dozen lines.

“So, you want in, then? A piece of the action? Need to move it, mate, before them birds are all bought?”

“I’d like to see the birds first if I may. I don’t like buying birds without having a good feel.”

“Yeah, well. Feeling ‘em up - when does it stop, eh? Wouldn’t we all like to feel ‘em. Then they’d be damaged goods, see?”

“Damaged?  They can’t be that sturdy if you can damage them that easily. Where did you say they were from? Do you have their passports?”

“Passports? Are you kidding? They don’t come with passports. We ship them in. Slip an envelope into the right hands at the passport control.”

You have perhaps worked it out already. The bird seller took a while to catch on. Poor Ivan didn’t. 

Next we marry the dialogue to the setting.

Ivan was becoming uncomfortable not just with the way the conversation was going.  He didn’t like football or football grounds. He wondered why they couldn’t have met somewhere else. They were standing beside the food kiosk. The bird seller was reaching into his pocket for loose change. The smell of chip fat oil was nauseating and Ivan had spilt hot coffee on his hand and it stung.

“Got any brown sauce, mate?” The man pushed the polystyrene tray along the counter.

Ivan was hoping the man had a Spanish dovetail to sell – grey feathers if possible. The ad in the local paper had been in large bold print – “Birds for sale!” The talk of no passports worried Ivan. He needed to know the breeding background of the birds.  It surprised him that the bird seller didn’t seem to find it that important.

I’ll skip the middle bit of the story – it goes on a bit. Someone scores a goal.  There’s a lot of singing. I plundered my setting chart and covered all the senses. The bird seller tried to pressure Ivan into a decision. His voice took on a threatening note.

The bird seller looked around, eyes shifting from a group of me leaning against the coarse brickwork to a single man loitering beneath a poster.

“Something’s not right.”

A hand slapped against Ivan’s chest, feeling the fabric of his shirt.

“Are you wired?”


“You’re an effing cop! I’m being set up. The whole conversation on tape! I should have known!”

Ivan, small man that he was, tried to make himself even smaller.

“I just want a Spanish dovetail with grey feathers,” he said soflty.

“A Spanish dovetail?”  A dawning look crept over the bird seller face.  “Birds? Real birds? With feathers? Not birds, then? Not women?”

Scorn poured into every word.  It stung more than the spilt coffee.

“Effing ‘ell” said the seller shaking his head as he walked away.

And there you have it - a complete story, apparently, in first draft form. I don’t know whether Spanish dovetails with grey feathers actually exist – but I had you convinced they did, didn’t I?

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