Thursday, February 23, 2012

Caroline Todd On Short Story Ideas

My guest today is Caroline Todd, half of the formidable bestselling writing team called Charles Todd, authors of both the Inspector Rutledge and Bess Crawford mystery series, set during and after World War I. Their Rutledge novel A LONELY DEATH was an instant bestseller. Bess Crawford's A BITTER TRUTH made its debut last summer.
Caroline and I have worked together on many DEATH KNELL short story anthologies. As our Sisters in Crime chapter hatches plans for a fifth DEATH KNELL, I asked Caroline to share her expertise in the short story realm for our Sisters. I pass along her wisdom here..

Short Story Ideas
by Caroline Todd

Everyone says that short stories are harder to write than a novel.  I can tell you from my own experience that it isn’t true.  The real difference is the plot.  Some plots are best in a novel, where there’s ample room for character development and red herrings and lots of action, etc.  If you’ve read Harry Potter, you can see why it took not one novel but several to follow Harry as he learned to be a wizard.  Other plots have no need for greater development.  They can be told in 1/10 the number of words.

Look at a sit com, for instance. There’s one story line and one set of characters. The problem, whatever it is—getting a date, preparing for the in laws to visit, looking for a job—can be dealt with in one half hour show.  LAW & ORDER  has more convoluted plots, more characters, and it needs an hour.  Have you ever wondered what would happen if you went off to work one morning, and  the small apartment building’s outer door is locked as usual, but there’s a body lying by the mailboxes?  Once your shock is over, and the police have gone, would you start to worry about the other residents—and whether one of them killed the man?  Would you look at them differently? And would you see suspicious behavior in several of them?  Maybe one of them had already seen the body, but for personal reasons didn’t want to get involved, and so he went back upstairs instead of calling the police.  Maybe the young woman in Number 6 who used to smuggle her boyfriend in so that the other people in the building wouldn’t know she was having an affair with a married man, had a falling out with him and stabbed him.  When you try to talk to the older woman in Number 5, she nearly bites your head off.  And then someone comes to your door that night and tries to get in. What do you do? 

Plots like this can start out in so many different ways.  First person, third person, it depends on what fits the story best.  And what kind of story is it—traditional, police procedural, suspense, horror?  For instance a horror story would have a dead former resident coming back to kill the present apartment owner.  Procedural would take it from the point of view of a new policeman on the block, not one of the apartment folks.  Traditional would let the woman who found the body solve the crime.  Suspense comes with the knock on the apartment door. What did you do last week?  Take your car into a garage for work? Go to the dry cleaners? Have dinner in a small new restaurant?  Walk along the Brandywine River?  Any one of those apparently harmless errands could lead to a tidy little murder. And not everyone will see them in the same light.  Another way to deal with a short story is to take one of your favorites and outline it.  Not to copy but to analyze.  To see how a published author took a single idea and turned it into a very interesting story. 

Writing is like knitting or running marathons or cooking an Italian dinner or anything else you love.  It takes a little work to do it well. And here you have a chance for your first publication!  Handed to you by your local chapter! Did you know that when the first Death Knell came out, most of the authors weren’t published?  Did you know that some of them went on to win awards and see their novels published? If you want to try to write, there’s no better place to start out than with your Sisters, who will help you, advise you, and never laugh at you, however rough your first attempt.  Nobody can ask for more than that.

Caroline Todd

1 comment:

jenny milchman said...

Hi Caroline! I met you and your son (and Laura Lippman) at the Brooklyn Public Library several months ago. We gave your book as a Christmas book to my dad and he enjoyed it hugely. Thanks for this post, which comes just a time when I am about to teach a short story workshop :)


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