Sometimes we see a news story that causes the fiction writer in us to jump with anticipation. You know, a quirky story, buried somewhere near the back of the paper (if you still read the paper) or in the “Strangely Enough” section of some online portal.
The fiction writer in us says, “That might make an interesting tidbit for a story.” We don’t want to just write a fictional account of the news story, really. We are looking for something much, much bigger.
This is the sort of thing that is often, for me, what Richard Hugo calls a “Triggering Town”; it’s an image that sticks with me, has an immediate (yet, mysterious) meaning, and begs to become something more. In poetry, Kathy Smith Bowers calls this the “abiding image”. No matter what you call it, this sort of specific vision of a person in a place in a specific situation is the white-hot center of my short stories.
Here are a few abiding images that I’ve turned into short stories:
- A pastor’s wife, kneeling in a pick-your-own strawberry patch, being asked by an over-eager evangelical, “Have been born again?”
- A midget whose job has been to be hurled down an oil-soaked mat toward over-sized, styrofoam bowling pins finding out from the bar owner that he’s being replaced by goldfish racing.
- A young woman, in a coffee shop with her much older fiancée, realizing that all of the wedding preparations that are stressing her are old hat to him, because he’s done it all before.
- An insurance salesman who is being persecuted by someone leaving voodoo dolls in various places.
- Replace the main character of the news story you choose with your own mom or dad. Write a scene (or two, or twenty pages) where your own parent is the person who is facing the challenges, living in the world, dealing with the circumstances of the news story you found. Call them by their real name, try to imagine how they would react, how they would cope, how in the world your own mom got in that situation in the first place. (If you decide this is a story you want to circulate later, you can go back and change the names of your parents. But for now, try to make it about this fictional THEM.)
- Replace the main character of the news story with the mother or father of the main character of your novel-in-progress or a short story that you are stuck on. You may never use this writing for anything other than trying to understand your characters better. Ideally, this will shake loose some new element or missing piece of your story, and that is the whole idea!