Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Peter Alan Orchard: the pleasure of keeping the writing short.

I've now produced three publications: a full-length historical mystery (A Pig in the Roses), a 10,000-word adventure for children (The House on Athene Street) and a collection of previously-blogged historical short stories (Voices from the Past).  So what exactly is the particular pleasure of writing short stuff?

First, the obvious. It's shorter. There's no need to develop the long plot strands, no need for the complex building of tension and interest over a long story arc. But is it easier to write? I'm not so sure. There still has to be the same care in developing character and atmosphere, perhaps more because of the shorter space available to create the effects. I tend to think in scenes, often deriving from a single image or character, and usually find short stories arriving in my head mostly complete bar the actual writing, which which is handy for someone who hates plotting as much as I do.

The stories in Voices from the Past are a varied lot, some very short, some humorous, a ghost story or two. One story, Hoard, set in Roman Britain, has already appeared on this blog and here's a bit from Hallveig, a brief sketch set in medieval Iceland :

Below her the farmhouse sat comfortably into the fellside, thick turf walls on a timber frame buried in the earth, the floor inside lower than the grass cropped outside by Gelli’s sheep. Inside Hallveig’s sullen daughter Rannveig, fifteen and ripe for marriage, would be taking bread from the oven, practising for her husband. Red Gelli and his sons had been out after the fish all day on the breathing sea to the south, opposite to the thunder.

Hallveig smiled and picked up her spade. She remembered Gelli in his young days, burning with the stories brought back by the companions of Leif Eriksson, tales of the seas beyond Greenland, of the vine-country, of the skraelings with their skin boats and red hair and furs. They had taken ship together, sturdy young man and wife and baby sons going a-viking, sailing west late in the season to find new lands unknown to Leif Eriksson. Several days out at sea they hit seas like mountains, seething and roaring, sucking at the keel of the ship, winds that tore the sail and lifted the waves inboard. Back they came through icebergs striped like the jaws of whales, wallowing in the tide with nothing to show for it, and never sailed out of sight of land again unless it was after the fish.

The House on Athene Street, like my whodunnit A Pig in the Roses, is a kidnap-and-chase plot set in Athens in the fifth century BC. Since it's aimed at the 9-12s, the main aim was to keep the story moving, the tone light and the dialogue perky. In this scene from the subplot the parents, Helene and Lysikles, have arranged a social visit to a family whose unprepossessing son may make a serviceable husband for the hero's sister, Xanthippe, when she's of age (around the mid-teens in ancient Greece). Helene is determined but Xanthippe is just eleven and less than enchanted, so Hermippos, the thirteen-year-old hero, decides to make mischief:

Oh, wonderful, Xanthippe thought. The great get-Xanthippe-married-off-to-the-Nose conspiracy is up and running. And here he comes, the great one himself.

Sophilos appeared in the doorway, a gangling youth of nearly seventeen with a vague smile lighting up those parts of his face not occupied by nose. He rubbed hands on his tunic, leaving soil stains, and nodded shyly to the visitors.

‘I’ve been chasing the pig out of the vegetable patch,’ he said. ‘It likes onions.’

Xanthippe felt a giggle rising up her body and threw her brother an imploring look. Save me, it said. Please don’t let me laugh at him!

Hermippos marched over to Sophilos and grabbed him by the arm. ’Tell me about the pig, Sophilos,’ he said firmly. ’And have you started cadet training yet? It starts at your age, doesn’t it? I can’t wait to start, but I’m too young.’ Together the boys sauntered out into the sunlight. ’Is that the pig over there,’ Hermippos went on happily, ’digging up turnips with its nose?’

Her fingers clasped over her mouth and tears of silent laughter in her eyes, Xanthippe heard her mother say, ‘There, Lysikles, I said the boys always got on well together.’

The House in Athene Street is $2.99, Voices from the Past is $1.99 and A Pig in the Roses is $3.99. All are Smashwords premium titles and available in all the usual ebook formats. Details are on my Smashwords page and at http://www.peteralanorchard.net/, where you'll also find a short story, Starlight, for $0.99.



Lindsay Townsend said...

Peter - I loved novels about the ancient world and found your Pig in the Roses utterly fascinating. I laughed at The House on Athene Steet - great fun!

'Starlight' is set in another fav period of mine, Anglo-Saxon England.

I think as a reader I enjoy short stories as a way to explore new writers to me.

Linda Acaster said...

I like the way the characters are very human while still thinking within their cultural time frames. "Hallveig" speaks to me having been to Iceland on a few occasions and inside their reconstructed houses where you can sit round a long-fire and listen to this sort of terminology in their stories. So did you get it from books (ie the Sagas) or have you come across audio downloads?

Peter Alan Orchard said...

Thanks very much, both. Linda, I'm a sponge. Although my main background is classical, I've soaked up a lot of stuff over the years about a lot of places and periods, particularly the early ones. In the case of 'Hallveig' it was a mixture of sagas, wildlife/geographic/archaeological documentaries and book research.

Savanna Kougar said...

Peter, you have a great sense of culture and the way society works. Beautiful penning.

Celia Yeary said...

PETER--I love your sense of humor and timing in the excerpt. Also, I agree about writing short stories compared to longer ones. Shorter ones can often be more difficult because of the need for every word and phrase to be important.

I wrote three 1500 word Free Reads for The Wild Rose Press, and at first, each one came out at 3-4000.
The editor scolded me each time--"cut it down to 1500." I felt I simply could not and even implored her to do it for me!
It was a great learning experience, and she was a wonderful teacher. I still love my free reads on the publisher website.
Thanks for the very interesting post--Celia

Peter Alan Orchard said...

Thank you, Savanna and Celia. I'm glad you enjoyed it.