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Story Cues: A Restaurant, a Suitcase, and a Missed Call at 3am

Recently, I attended a class in short story writing. Talk about fun! It’s been a while since I collaborated with other writers to work on craft, and I’ve never been instructed on this form of storytelling.

We met every Tuesday night at our local library. Each week focused on some aspect of the work: setting, pacing, dialogue, etc. After dissecting a few short stories together, we were given a set of prompts and allowed to free write for 30 minutes.

What I love about short stories is how direct my storytelling becomes. There are not enough pages to describe everything that’s going on. I only have to give a taste of conflict to make a point. I don’t have to outline every character’s backstory. Even with these bumpers in place, my biggest problem with short stories is length. Mine are usually > 10,000 words. My goal with the short story writing class was to learn how to write more with less.

The following excerpts are from my freewriting time during the course. I’m not yet sure which will become fully developed. One I’ve already used as an opening in a new novel (see if you can guess which!) I’ve also included the opening to a revised story I wrote long ago called “Making a Pie with Grandma.”

Suitcases and Shadows

Prompt: combine “a characters who comes from money” with the phrase “missed call at 3am” and the words “dumpster” and “restaurant.”

Cedric pulled his Mercedes coupe to the curb and checked his GPS, then at the darkened streets. Here? he wondered as a feeling like worms in his gut took hold. Across from him, an alley disappeared into shadows, but he could make out the shape of a dumpster.

Cedric closed his eyes tight. The smell of the leather seats filtered through his senses. Outside the safety of his vehicle, a diesel truck rumbled past.

They had called him at 3 a.m., and though he’d missed it, they left him the coordinates for this dumpster–it had to be this one–it was the only one for several blocks and the only one behind the restaurant.

He fingered the Ziplock bag next to him, the package wrapped neatly inside it. He’d met all of their demands, but what if he was wrong?

Behind him, he heard loud voices and turned in his seat to see three young men dressed in baggy jeans, tank tops, and one with a black watch cap pulled low over his brow. In an instant, his eyes locked with the middle one, the leader, clear by the strut in his step.

Author’s note: When I wrote this story, I was in the throes of finishing Finding Izzy Ford, book 3 in my Cassidy Kincaid mystery series, which is probably why this story has a creepy, sinister feel.

The Bungalow

Prompt: write a story either related to a real experience with family (or not) using a specific time span such as an amusement park visit, a day trip to a museum, etc. 

Margaret stepped over the threshold of the single-story bungalow the real estate agent called “sunny” in her gushing description. Today, the agent was dressed in a red wrap-around dress, red strappy sandals, and carried a large leather tote bag. The agent paraded into the hallway, her shoes clicking on the linoleum that Margaret had already noticed was curled up along the moulding.

Margaret stood as the emptiness swirled around her. She tried to imagine her daughters playing by the fireplace, or how it would feel walking them inside after swim practice, their wet hair dripping all the way down to their shared room. The real estate agent clicked into the kitchen, showcasing the faded appliances like Vanna White: kitchy refrigerator, peeling varnish cabinets, the single sink. All Margaret saw was what it lacked: kitchen island, second dishwasher, pantry stocked with supplies, her mixer, blender, and her secret stash of boxed Merlot that had carried her through everything.

The backyard, a tiny square of brown grass lined with withered roses offered no shade trees, no jacuzzi, only a fence made of faded boards and rotting posts that the real estate agent said she would “handle.”

Her older sister had said that if a marriage makes it until the children go off to kindergarten, it’ll last. So Margaret had been the dutiful wife and mother, tending to everyone’s needs but her own, knowing that the marathon would eventually end so she could reclaim her life. If only she had known the cost of such a plan.

Author’s note: sounds a bit dark, right? I wanted to capture the bitterness and uncertainty of a woman having to make a fresh start as a single mother. This opening has been revised since to make it a bit more hopeful. This exercise – using an event with a limited timeframe, in this case, the real estate tour – as a way to keep the story short was the most helpful lesson I learned in this class. 

Burning Timbers

Prompt: use the phrases “the time Leslie called me a leech” with “set fire to the house” and “tulips”

I put the tulips under the pillows, and then set fire to the house. Standing in the trees to watch it burn, I savored the thrill of what I’d done.

They’ll never find me.

It took a long time to find six tulips all the same color red, but in the end, they were all the same, I decided. Or close enough.

The blaze burns higher. I see the second story windows of the old farmhouse glowing orange. The roof will go next, and once there, the fire will eat up every bit of poison in those timbers.

All the years they tormented me. The time Leslie called me a leech. The time Jasper cut the soles out of my shoes. I never asked to live with them. Never wanted to get locked in the outhouse or slaughter pigs or wear hand-me-down girl’s underwear.

Now I’ll never have to look at that old place again and wish for it to disappear, because soon it’ll be gone.

Forever.

Author’s note: Don’t worry, I don’t actually have arsonist tendencies. But the prompt created the need for a deranged narrator, and that was fun to experience. This could be the opening of a mystery where the arson is the inciting incident. After this, the book could switch to the detective’s POV, giving readers insight to the story that the protagonist doesn’t have. 

Father of the Bride

Prompt: combine the idea of a family mystery uncovered with the words “Sunday,” “wallpaper,” “swap,” “sister,” “marathon,” “feminist,” “demand,” “notebook.”

Tom laced up the tight black shoes his daughter had left for him inside a plain brown box, then stood slowly, going easy on his spine, and slipped into the silky jacket. With shaking fingers, he fastened the single button and brushed back his thinning hair, avoiding his reflection in the bathroom mirror.

Down the hall, he slipped into his daughter’s suite and stood frozen near the door like a lamp, or a coat rack. Though Jenny was ten feet away, her back was to him as her mother affixed tiny flowers into her hair, he could not and would not speak to her. Not today.

Two months ago, she came to see him. They met at a local breakfast place he’d never been to but heard was nice. He’d shaved, shined his loafers. He thought maybe . . . even though he’d hurt her so many times, pushed her away. But he’d been wrong.

Tom tried to make conversation, his yearning to connect so strong he felt his bones contract. They hadn’t shared a meal together in so long, not since he’d been sober. Not since he discovered that the ticking time bomb that was his heart would soon fail.

But she evaded his questions and asked nothing about his life. “I need you to walk me down the aisle,” she said, looking at him as if he might be a ghost, or a picture on the wall. “Sober.” She pulled a cream-colored invitation from her purse and slid it across the table.

Author’s note: The idea for this story was inspired by Annie Proulx’s short story original of “Brokeback Mountain.” If you haven’t read that piece, it’s a beauty. I wanted that same kind of sensation–longing, regret, sacrifice–but set against a joyful time like a wedding. I have always been drawn to stories of contrasts, the extreme highs lined with terrifying lows, or good characters that make bad choices. 

Making a Pie with Grandma

Using the lessons from my short story writing class, I decided to revise one of my first short stories. I’d never been satisfied with the ending.

When I pick up Grandma at Sunny Oaks, she is dressed to go but doesn’t know me. Her weathered skin looks pale but her eyes are shiny-blue and sharp. Her white hair is parted straight and secured in two, tight buns, giving her a girlish look.

“Hi Grandma.”

I take a deep breath. “It’s me, Brigit.” I pronounce my name the way she knows it. Everyone else calls me Bridge-it.

She looks at me curiously.

“Your granddaughter.”

“Oh.”

“We’re going to my house to make a pie.”

Grandma’s posture straightens. But she says nothing.

“Ready?”

“I suppose.”

When I make a pie with Grandma, every so often I get lucky and her memory comes back. Sometimes it’s a little thing, like calling me by name, other times it’s much bigger, like remembering a piece of the past.

When we get to the house, it’s empty because Jim has taken the girls ice skating. This is something I do without them. Sometimes, if Grandma is having a good day, I’ll ask him to come back early. I want my daughters to know their great grandma. I fear that they’ll never love her, not like I do.

I settle Grandma into the easy chair. It faces the kitchen and is near enough for her to watch me work. I make coffee and slip a quick swig of whiskey into the bottom of her mug, the way she used to do for me after dinner when I visited her.

She thanks me and takes a sip. Not even a flicker do I get from those impish eyes. I sigh and pull out the flour, the shortening, the big, chunky bowl with the cracks in the glaze.

“Are we making a pie?” she asks.

My heart soars. “Yes.” I breathe deeply and try not to smile too big. “We’re making a pie.”

Her lips gather like she is about to reprimand a child for pulling a cat’s tail. “Make sure you use ice water.”

“Yes, Grandma.” My stomach flips.

I retrieve the Pyrex measuring cup with the faded red lines and push it under the ice maker on the refrigerator door. I hear its mechanical grinding, followed by the high-pitched plink of ice cubes tumbling into the glass. I tell myself to slow down. I don’t want to spook her with my excitement. When I have filled the measuring cup to the top line with cold water, the ice makes cracking, popping noises.

“What kind of pie?”

“Pumpkin.”

“Oh.” She looks pensive. “I never did like pumpkin.”

I chuckle. “You do too like pumpkin,” I tell her, feeling dizzy with this tiny window of lucidity.

“No. I never did. Karena loved pumpkin.”

My breath catches in my throat. She hasn’t spoken of my mother for a long time. She died of breast cancer six years ago. Whoever said, “Time heals all wounds” is full of shit.

Some mornings when the house is still quiet, I can feel my mother. My eldest daughter sometimes gets a curious, calm look on her face that belongs to her. It’s a look I only know from photographs of my mother when she was young. It’s certainly a look she never gave me.

I pour myself a cup of coffee but resist the temptation of whiskey. I tell myself that it’s too early. The hot coffee nearly burns my mouth but I swallow it, feeling it burn my throat with a strange satisfaction. I look out the window at the steam rising from the garden, the grass still polka-dotted with glistening drops of dew…

Author’s note: At its core, this story is about estrangement and the ways we distance ourselves from pain until we’re ready to face it. The grandmother in this story is nothing like my own, but the details of pie making and Norwegian culture come from experience. The grandmother that I made pie with passed away almost two years ago, and though she lived a full, incredible life, making pastries will always made me a little bit sad because she’s gone. I took the ideas here and crafted a full-length novel, my first, called Going Over the Falls. 

Which story would you like to read more of? You can make a comment HERE.