I rarely start writing with a length in mind, so my short and long stories often start the same way: I glean some fact or idea from history or science or folklore, and invent a character for whom that information puts something at stake. Reading about the impact of global warming on potato harvests, for instance, made me wonder how someone whose identity depends on farming might reorder their world in response. As someone told me recently, my stories have research questions behind them, and those questions are often closer to the surface in shorter fiction because I focus more directly on exploring a driving idea – lately, that driving idea has been tall tales. Plus, if there’s anything big publishing houses are more excited about than flash fiction, it’s research questions.
The relationships I’m most interested in writing about aren’t between people (can I say that without being sent off the island?), but between a person and nature or history or technology. So I tend to write one character stories, or create isolated characters without families or friends, and very short fiction lends itself to that because if stories go on long enough a reader will ask, “Hey, where’s this character’s family?” or even, “Is the guy who wrote this story a bearded creep who lives in a cave somewhere?” Really short stories can stay inside a constrained view of the world without giving readers time to worry what’s missing. And even if the story goes right past them without making any impression, at least it won’t take very long. In longer stories, more context might need to be added, maybe explanations of why a character is alone, even if I’m less interested in those details.
When it works, very short fiction can offer a burst of awareness, like a breakthrough moment in meditation or an incredible vista appearing at a bend in the trail. That moment can be a view through the scaffolding of stories we surround ourselves with to survive, like the myth of manifest destiny in “Sanctuary.” And that fleeting clarity is so powerful, when it comes, that the drive to recreate it can lead to more stories. That’s pretty much how I think about fiction in general, of any length, but with very short fiction I think it’s easier to know when it happens, and when it doesn’t. That’s the excitement and risk of the form, an immediacy of success or failure as loud and clear as a song.
Bio: Steve Himmer is the editor of Necessary Fiction, and has just finished a novel about a bearded creep who lives in a cave somewhere.
Read “I Grow Potatoes” in Amoskeag: The Journal of southern New Hampshire University
Read “Sanctuary” at Steve's blog, Tawny Grammer, reprinted from NANO Fiction
Read “The Lion King” at Titular