One of the most frequently asked questions at short story readings is: "Where did that story come from?" or "How did you get the idea for that story?" It's a perfectly legitimate question. Indeed, what other question can readers ask a writer about a story? Questions such as, "What does that story mean" or "What is that story about? "can only be answered, however tentatively, by readers, not writers. The question usually derives from the reader's sense that a story comes from "real life," which is usually more respected than "fiction." It often means, "O.K. I have heard your 'made-up' story; now tell me about the 'real' thing.
Because this is such an inevitable reader question, the O. Henry Prize Stories' appendix, "Writers on Their Work" and the Best American Short Stories' section "Contributor's Notes" usually focus primarily on writers talking about the source of their story. The following are the four most frequently-cited sources of the stories in both volumes. I will talk more about the stories in the next few weeks.
Beginning with Personal Experience
Sometimes, but certainly not always, stories come from personal experience. Louise Erdrich says that her story "Nero" (O. Henry) was based on the fact that her grandparents really did have a dog named Nero who was always escaping from the backyard. She also says the python experience in the story was based on actual experience, as was the fact that her grandfather wrestled for prize money in small farm towns in Iowa. But personal experience does not mean anything until it is made into a story. Erdrich says she did not know what to make of Nero until one morning when she was writing this story. Erdrich suggests that in the process of writing this story, she discovered it was about "existence, inevitability, and time."
Joyce Carol Oates, the consummate "profession" writer, seems to create stories out of everything she comes across, says her story "Mastiff" (BASS) derived from an actual experience when she and her husband went hiking in a canyon near Berkeley, California. She says the experience was so vivid and her emotions so intense, it was not difficult to write the story; she insists, however, that the story is fiction, "whatever its wellsprings in actual life."
One of the most common bits of advice often given to MFA candidates is, "Write about what you know." But that perhaps does not always work best. David Bradley ("You Remember the Pin Mill," O. Henry) says he started out wanting to write about what he knew—the experience of black Americans," but changed his focus when his agent suggested, "Why not write about white people." When he wrote about a couple of white guys in a rural area of Western Pennsylvania both in love with the same woman drinking beer in a pickup, a magazine ran the story with an illustration depicting both men as black. Bradley notes, "Stereotypes and expectations apply to writers too."
Maura Stanton says her story "Oh, Shenandoah" (O. Henry) began with a personal experience of breaking a toilet seat in the apartment she was renting in Venice. When she tried to find a replacement, she realized what an absurd quest it was to try to find a toilet seat in a city full of glass and lace and masks and marbled paper. She thought this "unromantic side" of Venice might be interesting to write about. But this was just an anecdote, not a story. It was only when she came up with Marie's need to make a decision about Hugo and her recollection of hearing a chorus of college students singing "Shenandoah" once in Venice that she knew what to do with Hugo. Stanton says "once my invented world got untethered from the real world and started obeying its own laws," she was able to find the toilet seat; that is, she was able to discover what the story was about.
O.A. Lindsey, whose story "Evie M" (BASS) derives from his combat experience during Operation Desert Storm, says the gist of the story is a nontraditional soldier facing "postwar pinpricks and the anxiety related to each."
Will Mackin's story "Kattekoppen" (BASS) also stems from military (Navy) experience, this time in Afghanistan, in which he felt he never quite got his bearings and that every day was an exercise in crisis management.
Beginning with a Concept
It has always been my opinion that good short stories are usually about universal mysteries of human experience. Although this means that a short story is more often focused on theme than merely on plot or character, it does not necessarily mean that a short story writer begins with a theme or idea and then develops plot and character to embody that theme. Indeed, such a tactic is apt to create a static "illustration"—at its most extreme an exemplum or a story with a moral.
However, sometimes a story does begin with a concept. For example in BASS, Charles Baxter's story "Charity" is one of a series of stories Baxter conceived on virtues and vices. Baxter had a story in last year's BASS entitled "Bravery." Both stories will appear with others in a new book due out in February 2015 entitled There's Something I Want You To Do. The interrelated stories, featuring characters that appear and reappear, are in two sections--one devoted to virtues (“Bravery,” “Loyalty,” “Chastity,” “Charity,” and “Forbearance”) and the other to vices (“Lust,” “Sloth,” “Avarice,” “Gluttony,” and “Vanity”).
The problem with such an approach, as Peter Cameron ("After the Flood," BASS), observes, is, what might called, the exemplum effect. Cameron says that since he does not write short stories very much anymore, he has to give himself some assignment or problem to solve in order to "jump-start" a story, hoping that such a "forced inception" won't weaken the story, that the story will "transcend its deliberateness."
Molly McNett says her story "La Pulchra Nota" (BASS) began as a contemporary story about a high school choir director falling in love with his student's beautiful voice, but then she found a text on singing that mentioned the theory of la pulchra nota, about teaching from the perfect note by Medieval music theorist Jerome of Moravia. Her story began to come together when she decided to put the story in that era. Then she came across a story of a man who lost his whole family in a month and still maintained his faith and trust in God. She says she wanted her voice teacher to have that kind of faith though she can't claim to share or fully understand it.
Nell Freudenberger's story "Hover" (BASS) began with the notion of a mother who could fly---not like superwoman, but rather sort of a gentle lift off the ground to hover in an awkward, unplanned, useless sort of way.
Chinelo Okparanta says her story "Fairness" (O. Henry) began with wanting to explore an issue she observed in women in East and Southeast Asia of women of a certain class wanting to keep their skin color light. The issue she explored, she says, however, was about loyalty and betrayal across social strata, not about skin bleaching.
Beginning with an Obsession
Some stories begin with an obsession, either a general obsessive focus of the writer or a particular event or observation that haunts the writer.
Allison Alsup ("Old Houses," O. Henry) tells about learning of an unsolved double murder of a wife and daughter in her neighborhood when she was a child. She was friends with a girl who lived in the house of the suspected murderer, a teenage boy. She and the girl thought the house was haunted. She says she was never able to reconcile that violence with the peacefulness of her street and felt compelled to write the story "in order to discover its potential significance." "Writers are negotiators," says Alsup, "hashing out ideas until seemingly opposite camps can sit at the same table and come to some sort of understanding."
Craig Davidson ("Medium Tough," BASS) says he is always interested in characters who are physically and emotionally broken; he says he likes characters who keep on trucking despite what life throws at them. He says he is not sure why he is drawn to such characters, although he thinks perhaps a therapist could.
Kristen Iskandrian says "The Inheritors," (O. Henry) revolves around some of her pet obsessions, the most fundamental of which is the "multilayered entity of the female friends, and wanted the "fumbling bloom of a relationship" be the story's "pulse." She chose a consignment store as the primary setting because she likes the "sentimental mess of things disowned and things reclaimed, an orphanage for objects." In such a place, she says her characters reveal their disparate desires and "inscribe one another."
Beginning with an Image
Often stories begin with an image. Olivia Clare ("Petur," O. Henry) says that when she lived in Iceland in 2010 for a short time, she saw the land covered with ash from the eruption of a volcano and imagined "a preternatural mother venturing out into an eerie scrim of ash"; almost before realizing what had happened, she imagined the woman meeting someone.
David Gates says his story "A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me" (BASS) began with an image--not one he remembered, but rather one a friend remembered of seeing Gates playing mandolin in a coffeehouse in New Haven when he was a high school kid. He says he recalls a fellow student at Bard College with a TR-6, and the death of the mandolin play in the story shares some details of the death of his father. He once kept chickens and he is a student of nineteenth-century British novels. Thus the story is a patchwork of many different things that seem to "come together" meaningfully.
Dylan Landis ("Trust," O. Henry) says it was an image of a teenager sneaking though her father's filing cabinet that sparked the story of Rainey Royal digging around and spotting her hated middle name on her birth certificate—a "fishhook that snags everything she finds unlovable in herself. The second image—which Landis says surprised her--was a gun tucked between file folders. Landis says she believes if you "root in the basement of the mind and grasp and object in the muck, your subconscious put it there for a reason." Landis says that as she wrote the story she had no idea how it would end, noting, "With every story I write, I like finding my endings in the muck of the basement too."
Mark Haddon ("The Gun," O. Henry) says "Good stories seem to come from some weird zone it's impossible to access in retrospect. "After all," he says, "if we knew how they came into being they'd be a damn sight easier to write." He says he only knows he had been "haunted" for a long time by the image of two boys pushing a pram containing a dead deer across the highway several miles from where he lives. He says he has no idea where the image came from, only that it had a particular charge and stuck with him. Haddon says the story contains several elements that keep cropping up in his writing, including a locale that might be described as "grubby, liminal, unloved places that are neither town nor country, whose ownership is dubious and that are never en route to anywhere," but, he adds, that might "just be portals to somewhere else altogether."
Stephen O'Connor says "Next to Noting" (BASS) would not have been written if it were not for Hurricane Irene. However, he says the "real inspiration" for the story was an image that just popped into his head of two sisters with black pageboy haircuts and eyes pale blue like the moon. When he started developing the image, he realized that wo sisters were entirely lacking in "fellow feeling," and consummately rational. When he realized that this seemed parallel with nature, he knew he would have the two women face Hurricane Irene—all of which became a means by which he could explore his longtime notion that although he is an atheist there are certain things he wants to believe that cannot be sustained by rational interpretation.
All of the Above
Of course, most stories combine all four of these "sources," as the writer engages in a dynamic process of discovery "about" something mysteriously human. The story's relationship to "real life" is usually more complex than the question about where the story comes from assumes and can only be discovered by the reader's engaging in a close reading of the fictional life of the story.