By Margaret Murphy/A.D. Garrett
Why do novelists write short stories? It certainly isn’t for the money – they really don’t pay much – and if, like me, you find them a challenge, they can take a disproportionate amount of work. And yet Murder Squad has published three anthologies since its inception in Year 2000. The latest collection is the most unusual yet. The Starlings, and other stories was inspired by atmospheric and evocative photographs of Pembrokeshire by David Wilson. Each of the six Squad members chose an ‘accomplice’ to write an additional story.
The result is twelve pictures, twelve tales of crime and mystery.
So what is the attraction of the short form for novelists?
Listening to the authors at the book launch at Waterstones Wrexham, I was fascinated by their accounts of what they had taken from this process. Many said that writing short fiction is a liberating experience – an opportunity to experiment. Martin Edwards says his story ‘is not really a crime story at all, though there is a crime in it.’ Chris Simms uses short stories as a ‘training ground: a less pressured place to try things I wouldn’t feel comfortable attempting in the serious arena of a full novel.’ Cath Staincliffe relishes the opportunity to ‘take risks and try new styles and voices’. Several of the Squad and Accomplices even chanced upon ideas for novel-length works: Kate Ellis, for instance, discovered a new character that she would like to feature in future books or stories while Christine Poulson – who, by the way, once wrote a short story from the point of view of a fish(!) – found a way to integrate Arthurian legend into her short story, while remaining true to the mythology. That, she says has unlocked the possibility of including mythology in a novel. Jim Kelly, on the other hand, admits that he has always avoided short stories because: ‘Brevity is such hard work! I thought they’d soak up good ideas I could use for books. But this project has changed my mind. The process actually freed up my imagination and led to an idea which I’ve now developed further into a book.’ What an exciting reversal of ideas!
Toby Forward enjoyed the discipline of writing to a brief. He says, ‘I have a head full of stories and the attention span of a goldfish.’ (Hm… a fishy theme seems to be emerging, here, but I will resist the temptation to throw in a line about red herrings…)
For Valerie Laws, short stories were the only genre she’d not had published, so she took it as a challenge to try something new. ‘Seeing David’s photograph of a place which changed the course of my life, one summer, fired me up to explore the darker (though exciting) side of that society,’ she adds, suitably enigmatic.
Ann Cleeves revealed that she often uses a short story when travelling ‘to capture a place, almost like a photograph or post card.’ Although this time, the starting point was the image, and her task was to imagine and evoke the place. She is drawn to lanes and tracks which recede into the distance and the front cover image, and the story it inspired, reflects this metaphorical desire to see where the road will lead.
Interestingly, photographer David Wilson found the experience liberating, too. Asked for his reaction to our interpretations of the twelve images, he said, ‘It’s fair to say my landscape photographs aren’t exactly biscuit-tin images. They have a drama, and on occasion, an eeriness to them onto which people impose their own narrative. You all did that with stunning effect.’
As for me, each photograph seemed to whisper of stories aching to be told. After much agonizing, I took my inspiration from an image of a row-boat marooned on the mud of an estuary. I was bewitched by the confluence of light and loneliness in the picture and inspired by the resonance of the surge and ebb of tides symbolizing the giving and taking of life. Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood was in my head during the entire writing process. The finished story is the first I’ve ever written in the first person, and it is not the one I began writing. That is the beauty of the short form – you can afford the luxury of heeding the siren call of an alternative narrative, allowing it to seduce you away from the story you had intended to write.
The Starlings and Other Stories is a terrific collection – I can say that because only one twelfth of the writing is mine (and none of the photographs). Perfect for readers’ groups and as inspiration for writers’ groups, too, it is a thing of beauty in itself – one for the collector and the short story enthusiast to cherish.