Short stories (1) – learning to love them

Nina MiltonToday novelist and short story writer Nina Milton gives us the first in a series of posts on the fictional form that is the backbone of the Unchained anthology. 

“During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer’s control.”

Edgar Allan Poe, writing in the 1830’s in his usual, Gothic style, had possibly given us our first definition of a short story. That is, something that can be ‘read at one sitting’.  For me, Poe’s definition is spot on; short stories can demonstrate how diverse, funny, sad, illogical, cruel, rapturous, shocking and mysterious the human experience can be A short story can really ‘hold onto your soul’, as a deeply affecting reading memory. Or, as Alex Keegan says in Short Circuit (Salt Publishing)  a short story is “saying something, one thing about the world.”

Sadly, though, I sometimes wonder if anybody bothers to read short stories– in anthology, collection or even magazines. I imagine them as the poor step-sister of fiction, sitting alone in the ashes while the big ugly sisters doll themselves up for the Booker or Costa Balls. But occasionally, my heart lifts; I’m riding a train or waiting for a dental appointment and spot a someone with a Granta open on their lap, or enrapt in the Women’s Weekly romances.

Even so, on this side of the Atlantic, short stories are becoming increasingly rare in magazines, and collections only interest a tiny section of the book-buying public. The publications that specialize in new short fiction are read mostly by the wannabe writers themselves. There is often no section for short stories in libraries, and in the large Waterstones in the centre of Bristol they are housed on a floor-level shelf in a forgotten corner at the end of the wall lined with novels.

You have to wonder why. Surely the short story is the most convenient variety of fiction for this century, easily transported, quickly read – it can fill a single train journey or the wait for your dental check up. Sadly, it is hoisted on its own petard; a good short story ends all too quickly, a bad one is easily thrown aside – no chance of reading on just to see if it gets better in a few chapters – and by its very nature tends not to fulfill that longing to become intimate with a set of characters or solve the puzzle of a longer plot.

In the US, however, the short story is still loved. Jhumpa Lahiri, whose novel The Lowland is short-listed for the Mann-Booker this year, rose to fame in the US by winning the 2000 Pulizter Prize with her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies.

Take a tip from me; reading a short story twice is the best way to get hooked on them. I’ve had to do that a lot lately, as I’ve been writing one third of a new course for the Open College of the Arts – Writing Short Fiction. I returned to my previously loved short stories and analysed them carefully and was stunned by what was hidden in their depths that I’d missed on first reading. It was like that search for the watch you’ve lost…the gold one that your Gran left you… and finding it the bottom of a deep drawer you’d already rifled through.

Lahiri’s stories are a good example. The Third and Final Continent, from that collection is told in the first person. It starts… “I left India in 1964 with a certificate in commerce and the equivalent, in those days, of ten dollars to my name…” The narrator is an elderly man, looking back at his earlier life. It charts events set over several months, in which takes up his first job, marries by arrangement in India, then stays in digs while awaiting the arrival of his wife to the US, where they begin life without consummating their relationship for some weeks. However, despite this extended time line, Lahiri achieves a tight focus by relating the story via specific scenes and charismatic secondary characters and by using a universal theme (the strangeness of new places), a single symbol (the first lunar landing), and a prominent leitmotif (the word splendid!) At the end of the story, the protagonist reaches an ‘epiphany’; that is, he realizes something about his new wife…and his philosophy of life…which he had not before:

Mala rose to her feet, adjusting the end of her sari over her head and holding it to her chest, and, for the first time since her arrival, I felt sympathy. I remembered my first days  in London, learning how to take the Tube to Russell Square, riding an escalator for the first time, being unable to understand that, when the man cried “piper” it meant “paper,” being unable to decipher, for a whole year, that the conductor said “mind the gap” as the train pulled out of each station. Like me, Mala had traveled far from home, not knowing where she was going, or what she would find, for no reason other than to be my wife. As strange as it seemed, I knew in my heart that one day her death would affect me, and stranger still, that mine would affect her…..”

What cheered me further were Lahiri’s own words about the construction of this story – where she ‘got her ideas from’, in other words. She used brief memories her father had given her of his own first days in America: “What inspired me to write the story was the juxtaposition of the moon landing, a spectacular landmark in history, and the story of an immigrant’s arrival to a new country. I don’t think I could have written it any other way.” (Gotham Writers’ Workshop Fiction Gallery, Bloomsbury 2004.) In other words, she’d taken the tiny seed of a family recollection, and allowed it to grow and blossom.

So, my recommendation for this day is; read a short story. Pick any one that takes your fancy, and read it. Then put it away and see if you can find out something about the writer, better still their own thoughts about their writing. Thanks to Google, that’s never too difficult nowadays. Finally; read your short story again. Observe how, in the time it takes to reach your station, (or, mercy on us, be called into the dentist’s surgery), it can tug at you, make you re-evaluate things –  how the writer ‘controls your soul’ with with their brief words.

In the MoorsNina’s latest novel and the first in the Shaman Mystery Series is out now from Midnight Ink.

The long and winding writing road

Gail Swann“We have helped each other deal with rejections and criticism; changes of tense, point of view, direction, and the odd agent … Creative blocks have been dislodged, self-doubt dissolved, technology mastered.”

Gail Swann reminds us of our writing group’s history – and some of her own.

‘How long has your writing group been going?’ is a question I am sometimes asked. The answer tends to bring a tinge of pink to my cheeks. Twenty, um, something years. Maybe twenty five…?

The truth is I am astounded that we’ve kept it alive and well, not just across several decades, but through the epoch-making transition from pen strokes to pixels, to this age where a score of internet hits eclipses the euphoria of rattling out a good word count.

It all began in the preceding century.  I was new to Bristol, afflicted with a burning compulsion to write, and knew no other writers at all in the area. With no handy social networking at my fingertips, the closest I got to feeling part of a writing community was to read Writers Monthly avidly.  But that grown-up writing world seemed way beyond me, until one day I spotted an ad for a new women’s writing group in Bristol. It took a lot of nerve for awkward little me to pitch up at that house in Redland one Thursday evening. I don’t think I said a single word to anyone. The room was crammed with women of all ages, talking animatedly about writing matters. Clearly the ‘call for women writers’ had garnered an enthusiastic response.

Why women? I never really knew and I was too shy to ask! But I went back to a second meeting. I don’t know what propelled me as I felt so utterly out of my depth, but it was meant to be, clearly. The second meeting, in Montpelier, was much less well attended than the first. Perhaps I wasn’t the only writer who felt at sea. Maybe I even managed to say something. Like my name. My contribution (a poem aptly named Fate) remained securely inside my bag, even then. But what did happen was, that I met Nina Milton.

In the Moors
Nina’s book out now

Nina’s friendliness and encouragement has been enduring. We both continued to attend and take our turn hosting those Thursday evening meetings. Members of all writing-shapes-and-sizes came and went over the years, including the two women who had placed the ad and brought the group into being. Sheila and Suzanne moved away from the area but  they would certainly be amazed at the longevity and achievement of the group.

I have always loved the diversity of the group’s membership. For me, this has been much more than just a writers’ group. BWW, if we think of it as an entity, has seen babies born, and children grow up. It has seen degrees acquired, careers re-imagined, retirement celebrated, and not least, a swing towards cakes rather than biscuits at meetings. We have helped each other deal with rejections and criticism; changes of tense, point of view, direction, and the odd agent. Raison d’être has been re-installed in the wake of writing-crisis episodes, creative blocks vigorously dislodged, self-doubt dissolved, technology mastered.


Writers Unchained is the perfect way to describe the collective I’ve been a part of for these past – and I say it unashamedly – twenty five years or more. Being ‘in it together’ has allowed us, over time, to shake ourselves free from the various constraints we all encounter on the long and winding writing road.

The allure of research – and a plagiarist uncovered

Nicola Bennetts

‘What beats me is how a domestic dinosaur has become a chic badge of prosperity.’

Nicola’s recent article in the FT questioned the benefits of cooking on an Aga. For her biography she has left the present day and is delving back into the eighteenth century. Here are some of her recent experiences of research.

Until I began writing a biography I had no idea how many libraries I needed to join.  I now have a collection of plastic cards all, save one, with deeply unflattering photographs.  The lady at the National Archives in Kew told me I was allowed to laugh and snapped me at the right moment so that one’s OK.

Not that the photograph is the important bit.  Oh the libraries!  The Wellcome Library in the Euston Road must be the most silent place in London; you cannot help but concentrate in such a studious atmosphere.  And the Rare Books Room at the British Library is pretty good for head-down serious reading because that’s what everyone else is doing.  The National Archives, as well as taking the best plastic card photographs, must have the cleanest lavatories and washrooms in the whole of the U.K. (with warnings about not using hand cream).  That’s because of the documents you’re going to handle – ancient manuscripts whose pages you may be the first to turn for a hundred years or more.

Research, I was warned, can become obsessive – an end in itself.   Yep, every day I discover fascinating bits of information not strictly relevant to my subject but which, surely, I can weave into the narrative.   I wonder, for example, how many people are aware that Alfred Lord Tennyson, our Poet Laureate for nearly fifty years, was not the first choice for the post in 1850.  When Wordsworth died the Laureateship was offered to Samuel Rogers – he declined. 

Samuel Rogers
Samuel Rogers

Poor Samuel Rogers, he would love to have accepted the honour but felt that, at eighty-seven, he was too old and frail.   Not many people read his poetry these days though there’s one much-quoted line (well, half-line) for which he never gets the credit. 

Do you recognise: ‘A rose-red city – half as old as time’?  It describes Petra and was written by one, John William Burgon, in 1845.  But he filched it;  it’s blatant plagiarism.  Seven years earlier Samuel Rogers had used ‘half as old as time’ to describe Italian temples. 

He deserves more than a salute in a blog post but I just can’t find a way to give him more than a walk-on part in my current biography.  Perhaps the next one . . .

Women and Libraries – Unchained

Jean Burnett

Today’s post is by Jean Burnett. As well as writing historical novels, Jean has a penchant for the gothic. Her short story for Unchained is  ‘The Judge’s Chair’  which  takes place in the famous Bristol Room of the Central Library.

Thought for the day – “A clever woman is like a long tailed sheep. She’ll fetch no better price for that.” (The Mill on the Floss)

Women have had a fraught relationship with libraries through the ages. Traditionally, they had no relationship at all because they were usually illiterate or semi-literate. A few examples of learned women occurred in the ancient world and during the Renaissance, and those women usually ended badly. Elizabeth the First  was famously well-schooled, but a queen was an exception.

In general, popular belief echoed the words of a Louisa M. Alcott character, “She has read too many books and it has turned her brain.” In Victorian times it was seriously believed that too much book learning affected a woman’s fertility.

By the 19th century, middle and upper class women had access to the new subscription libraries where they devoured three volume novels and the Gothic tales of Mrs Radcliffe. The serious stuff was still out of reach. As late as the 1920s Virginia Woolf complained that she had been refused admission to the Bodleian library in Oxford because she was not a member of the university. (Women were not fully admitted until 1974).

Many years ago I joined the intimidating London Library where I reached for the same volume as the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey. He stared down at me from his great height in astonishment at my temerity. I dropped the book and scurried to the reading room where I found I was sitting at the same table as three famous (male) writers. Thoroughly demoralised, I fled the building, never to return.

The New Birmingham Library
The New Birmingham Library

Happily, no such problems occur in the nurturing aisles of Bristol’s libraries.

Later this month, a sixteen year old girl, shot for going to school in her own country, will formally open Birmingham’s amazing new central library.

Women and libraries – unchained.



Who Needs Mr Darcy, Jean’s picaresque novel following the exploits of Lydia, the bad Miss Bennet, was published in 2012 by Little Brown.

Photo credit: The new Birmingham Library by Brian Clift on Flickr