I didn’t start with a short story. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a short story that didn’t come out of a longer work. MFA folks will recognize in this that I never learned to write fiction in school. I learned it reading fiction, and writing the true story first. To get it out of the way, one might say now, though I surely didn’t know it then. All that taught me how to carry a pocket moleskin, and refine one morning’s work while thinking about the next’s.
One day, while we were vacationing in Connecticut, our son wanted to play golf. He went online and found a municipal course among all the country club listings, called and learned he’d get on soon enough if he just showed up and waited for a three-some. He jotted down the name and address. But this was before map-apps, and in time we were in the vicinity but lost as could be. I pulled into the fifth or sixth course we passed that wasn’t the one we were looking for—another country club it was—just to ask directions. I slowed to a stop in the parking lot, where a man was reaching into his trunk for his clubs.
I’m not sure he rolled his eyes at me when he saw us, but he knew we were lost. And he gave off a distinct I’m-better-than-you-in-so-many-ways vibe. He instantly reminded me of all the lawyers I’d worked with and against over the years, and didn’t like. Oh, there were plenty I did like, whether partners or opponents, but there were far too many who thought far more of themselves than they deserved. This fellow kind of rolled his eyes, watched the shotgun-side window roll down, and did what he could to get us on our way without catching something.
That character—a very “flat” character as writing teachers would say—became Chase Pendleton, one of the two protagonists in my first novel, Strays. He had the look, and the money and other circumstances to support the unsavory hidden life I just knew was behind it all. And I wanted to find out why. I scribbled and jotted in my moleskin until morning, and started writing about him, what I thought was behind this little scene that was or might be of interest.
A few days later, on the way to the airport, a stewardess boarded the bus and came down the aisle. It was her. Not the wife but the paramour who populated Chase’s hidden life. She was pretty, and had the kind of job that would have her around now and then but not always. And she had the look of someone who could play a role in that sort of life, at least while looking for another. She became the second of the three characters I thought the story would be about. In the end—or I should say in short order—she had played her role by the end of the first chapter, and the story would unspool from there over the course of the next year or so until the first draft was finished.
My second novel, Atlantic View, didn’t start with a character, but with a house. It was one of several one-hundred-year-old Victorians on the street above the café where I was writing in the days after Strays was finished. And it had a dormer window that looked out on the sea. Somebody would be writing up there, it seemed to me. About something he’d found up there after the family that had lived there—his family—were all gone.
To Be Continued