Story of a Story - Kate Blackwell's post on Mythical Books

Where do writers get their ideas? What makes a good story? Kate Blackwell writes about writing, published on Mythical Books, June 15th. You can read the original post here. 


                                                              STORY OF A STORY 
                                                                 Kate Blackwell

Vampires, Hobbits, buried giants, girls who kill by dreaming, or the guy with acne scars sitting in a booth in a King’s Family Restaurant, talking to a young girl. What is he saying? Who are they? Why are they here? You open your laptop. You begin to write.

What draws writers to their subjects? 

Grace Paley: “Almost every story is an argument of some kind. You write it because you do not know something, you write what you do not know about, otherwise you would not bother to write.” 

Fantasy, the paranormal, what we call realism—it makes no difference; the strange and the ordinary must contain mysteries in order to be written about. Forget the old aphorism “write what you know.” Go for what you don’t know, for what is beneath the surface, hidden like a throbbing heart. 

You start with what you can see. The girl looks to be about twelve. She has green-painted fingernails. She is playing with the pepper shaker, walking it back and forth across the table. The man says, “Did I ever talk to you about pepper?”

You add a feeling, a desire, a fear, something from the past. He wants her attention, his daughter whom he doesn’t often see. The pepper stirs a memory of when he was a boy, the same age the girl is now, and his father used to take him hunting. He remembers they used bread to attract the animals, bread smeared with pepper. 

“Pepper can be dangerous,” he says. 

You write the story he tells the girl. You begin to understand him, who he was as a boy, who he is now. Then you write your story. 

None of this is easy. The initial spark—something you observe, something someone tells you, something you dream—may sit fallow in your journal or on your computer for years before you re-discover it and begin to write. It takes time to make art out of the raw material of life or fantasy.

It was five years after I saw the man and the girl in the restaurant that I wrote “Pepper Hunt.” It appeared first in a literary journal, where it won first place in a short-short contest, then in two anthologies, and it’s now in my story collection, You Won’t Remember This

photo © duncan1890

Starting With Memory - Kate Blackwell in The Writer's Life eMagazine

This is part of an interview with Kate Blackwell published in The Writer's Life eMagazine.

You can read the full interview here.

Q: Welcome to The Writer's Life!  Now that your book has been published, we’d love to find out more about the process.  Can we begin by having you take us at the beginning?  Where did you come up with the idea to write your book?

A: Since You Won’t Remember This is a collection of stories, I don’t have a short answer to this question. I began to write stories twenty years ago, initially as a way to learn how to write a novel. But the strategies of the short form were seductive. I kept writing stories until I had enough for a collection. As for my ideas for individual stories, they usually begin as a memory, something I don’t understand and can’t forget: an offhand remark of my mother’s, a murder case I read about in the newspaper, a wedding I attended when I was twelve. I suppose I write to make sense of something.

Q: How hard was it to write a book like this and do you have any tips that you could pass on which would make the journey easier for other writers?

A: The hard part of writing this book was the time it took. Short stories aren’t easy to get right; sometimes I linger over one for several years before I understand what it’s about and am able to find the ending. One thing that keeps me going is the chance to publish single stories on the way to a book. Ten of the twelve stories in this collection first appeared in literary magazines.

Q: Is there anything that surprised you about getting your first book published?

A: I was surprised at how good it felt to connect with readers. I had no idea how moved I would be by people’s reactions to my stories, their curiosity about the characters, their enthusiasm for their favorite story, and the questions they asked about those that troubled them. The conversations I’ve had with readers have been amazingly affirming.