This is the story of a problem.

Once there was a young writer who could not write short stories. She tried every so often, noted that her attempts still sucked, and went back to the (unfinished, and later finished) novels she was much better at. But then one day she figured out the short story thing, and there was much rejoicing.

Short stories didn’t take a bunch of effort, you see. Why, there was one year when she had lots of free time and managed to crank out no less than six short stories in two months — all that and a novel, too! Many of them got written in a single day, or maybe two or three. She would get an idea, and she would follow it to the end, and then she would have a story. And it was very nice.

But then one day — only it took a good deal longer than a day — she wrote a story called “La Molejera.” This story was not quick; this story was not easy. This story had her reading a four hundred and eighty-page ethnography and e-mailing professors all over creation in an attempt to get her facts right. But that was a fluke, right? It was a novelette anyway. Never mind that a year later she wrote “The Deaths of Christopher Marlowe,” in which she could barely get through a paragraph without having to stop and fact-check something. Those were just occasional ripples in her otherwise smooth sailing.

Except they’re not occasional anymore. From “Hannibal of the Rockies” (the story that’s spent four years being not written because of all the damn work involved) to “Chrysalis” to “Double Woman Dreamer” to the story that won’t really be titled “Prince of the Stone,” from the psych research of “Mad Maudlin” to the psych research of Catherine’s untitled story, from the story-set starting with “Xie Meng Lu Goes on Pilgrimage” that requires her to learn ancient China from the ground up to crap like “The Three Hackbutters” that really consists of a title and a time period and not much else, it seems like this poor little writer can’t produce a short story without doing a thesis’ worth of research first. “The Gospel of Nachash” alone required her to read bits of the Old Testament, most of the gospels of the New Testament, half a dozen gnostic apocrypha, and a handful of Jewish midrashim, not to mention dig through several Hebrew dictionaries (did we mention she doesn’t read Hebrew?), and it’s just one symptom of what looks frighteningly like an epidemic.

No wonder she isn’t writing many short stories anymore.

She would like to go back to the halcyon days in which she could just make stuff up. Yes, she knows she’s writing better stories now, but surely it’s possible to write good fiction without ransacking a research library first? It’s enough to make her pack it in and declare she isn’t writing anything other than fairy-tale retellings and Driftwood stories for the next year, since neither of those has ever required her to look anything up.

Dear Universe: less with the heavy lifting, kthxbye. There’s enough of that in the queue already.

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  1. 1. Joe Iriarte

    “But then one day she figured out the short story thing, and there was much rejoicing.

    Short stories didn’t take a bunch of effort, you see.”

    Please to share secret? kthx ;)

  2. 2. Phiala

    But rummaging through research libraries is the best part! It’s the writing stories bit that’s hard work.

  3. 3. Adam Heine

    I’m totally making stuff up, but it sounds like you got some bad comments from someone who knew some obscure fact you didn’t and it’s made you scared.

    I mean, that’s one possibility.

    Or maybe you’re like me and you research because you love it. I agree with Phiala, it’s one of the best parts, but it can suck you in.

    When I find myself lost in research, or trying to answer the not-yet-existent questions of some over-obsessed fanboy, I try to go back to what the original question is that I was asking and if I’d answered it well enough. Most of the time, Wikipedia is good enough to get past most folks and it takes less time than learning Hebrew :-)

  4. 4. S. M. Payne

    I’m on the research heavy-end and you’re right! It makes for better stories. But we’d all love to just let it go and write something that comes out. I wrote the first draft (and it was good too!) of my juvenile book (27,000 wds) in about a month, including woodworking research and prepping for Thanksgiving and Christmas! I started my SFF novel in 2002 and I’m still trying to figure out this or that about physics, etc. If only all stories were as easy, but they’re not. They’re all different. They all have different needs. I’ve been putting off a Biblical fiction story that’s been crying to me for years because it’s going to be a heap of a lot of research–and I know Hebrew!

    So, short tale: I know what you’re feeling. When I’m feeling really down and just have to FINISH something, I go ahead and write a Christmas story.

  5. 5. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    What Joe said above.

    And also . . . your academic underwear is showing. Just saying. :)

    Seriously though, I don’t do shorts very often on account of pretty much the not having many short ideas. But I had one that was based on my diss research of a novelist, and involved researching 1830s India. Yeah. I totally get what you’re saying. On the other hand, I love that story.

  6. 6. Kari Sperring

    I love this post! That is so exactly like me. A short on terrorism? Go read up the history of the illegal book trade in Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries. One on an English town — the history of Hindi cinema, the ins and outs of Whaling , every map in existence ever… Novels are far less work!
    Kari

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Adam — no, Diana got it right; my academic underwear is showing. :) I do find the research fun, especially because it often produces neat little twists and oddities that make the story richer. Sometimes it turns into a black hole I have trouble escaping, but the truth is, I don’t even mind it in any given instance: my real problem is that every idea I’m getting seems to require that level of work. It was fine when the research-heavy stories were occasional things, but they’ve taken over the asylum lately.

    Joe — I’d share the secret if I could, but truth is, one day I finally figured out what a short-story-sized idea was (as opposed to a plotless vignette or a novel idea crammed into way too few words), and I still don’t know what caused that epiphany. But when I don’t have to do all the resesarch, they are a lot less work, simply because they’re a fraction of the length of a novel.

  8. 8. Satima Flavell

    Research is fun, and quite the best displacement activity. But if one gets an idea for a short that requires as much research as a novel, one has to draw the line, I reckon.

    And Marie, I’d love to see a post on your epiphany re what makes a short story. I’d love to write short stories but every idea I get demands a trilogy, at least:-)

  9. 9. Phiala

    Academic underwear – THAT’S my problem :)

  10. 10. Joe Iriarte

    *grin*

    Novels posing as short stories are exactly my problem. If I shoot for 5,000 words, I get 10,000. Oh well. I guess it’s like Jack Palance’s “one thing”–you have to find it for yourself.

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    If I could explain what makes a short story, I would. Sure, I can list for you the usual metrics people give — X number of characters, or only one conflict, or whatever — but I had those metrics before I figured it out, and they didn’t help me. All I know is that one day I came up with an idea, and when I wrote it, the result was 3600 words long. (Later published as “Execution Morning”.) And after that I was able to recognize what could be turned into a short story and what couldn’t.

    Not very helpful, I know.

  12. 12. Saje Williams

    The irony about short stories is that I’d never been able to actually finish one until I’d completed my first novel and realized all at once how to tie it all together. Now stories are fairly easy and, if done right, can turn into a novel if even after they’re finished if you find there’s more tale to tell.

    Usually when I do research it’s with a specific bit of information in mind, though I’m more often than not inspired to change something just because I operate out of a many-worlds, alternate history dynamic and it’s fun to go “Oh, I know that it didn’t really happen that way, but what if it did?” It bugs the hell out of some folks.

    Evil, I know. But fun.

  13. 13. Daniel G.S.

    I think you… I mean, that young writer, is drowning on a tea spoon. Okay, she is perfectionist, obsesive, and that when you write (and when you do surgery), is a good thing. I wish I had half of her cualities. But if she wants to write a history about an indian town, and all she know about India is Mowly singing with a bear, well… maybe she could write a short story anyway, putting some advices on the text where some research is needed, and keep writing untill it’s finished.
    With short stories you can do that. But with novels, research is so important that you can’t write a thing without it. Hell, I have been researching about ancient magic of south america for years. And I live in south america!

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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