Why I Love Short Stories

I don’t remember when I fell in love with short stories. Must have been early, in junior high or high school. As a mystery fan, I know mysteries have a long, proud short story tradition–the first mysteries were short stories written by Edgar Allan Poe. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four novels featuring Sherlock Holmes but fifty-six short stories. I discovered Ray Bradbury short stories at my first library job. After so many years of reading this literary form, I can give you four reasons why I love short stories.

Quick Satisfaction

I read for pleasure at night to help me get sleepy. Short stories allow me to enjoy a complete story in one or two sitting. Since I’ve had kids, I find it much more difficult to finish a novel. If I really like it, I have to sneak in reading time at other points during the day besides bedtime, and ultimately, I grow frustrated.

Sampling New Authors and Genres

When I long for something new to read, I pick up anthologies. I can sample a variety of authors in a short amount of time. If I like a particular author’s story, I’ll seek out his other works, including novels. If I need a break from mysteries, I’m more willing to try a different genre in short story form because it’s less of a commitment. I enjoy reading fantasy and sci-fi in short stories because I don’t enjoy novel with world-building so complicated I need to take notes. Short stories allow me to dip into a fantasy world without drowning in details.

Immersive Reading

I find it easier to get lost in a short story than a novel. Maybe it’s because a short story often takes place in one setting and is told from one point of view. Novels can achieve this too. One of the reason that Watership Down is a favorite novel of mine is because author Richard Adams does such a marvelous job of making the English countryside come alive. But I think it’s harder to do this in novels because they have more plot to keep moving. The short length of short stories actually works in their favor by forcing writers to zero in on settings and characters and to make every word work double, triple, or quadruple duty.

Twist Endings

If there’s one literary technique short stories do better than novels, it’s the twist ending. Again, I think it has to do with the length. On April Fool’s Day, a person doesn’t mind being tricked for a few minutes. But if the joker keeps it up until the end of the day, the victim will feel stupid and conned. Finding a twist ending at the end of a short story seems appropriate after I invest only an hour to it. But if I spend days with a novel, only to have all my conceptions upended, I’ll most likely feel cheated.

Novels can do the twist ending well. Agatha Christie pulled it off in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I just think it’s much harder to keep the truth hidden from readers for hundreds of pages instead of fifty and not have them feel like they’ve been scammed.

Which do you prefer—short stories or novels and why?

Writing Tip — Favorite Stories

bookw-1076196_1280For some reason, mysteries and Christmas seem like a natural fit. Perhaps it’s because Christmas celebrates one of histories greatest mysteries, God becoming fully human.

Christmas mysteries have a long tradition. Christmas Eve, before TV and radio, was the time to tell ghost stories. In 1892, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote “The Blue Carbuncle”, in which Sherlock Holmes solves a mystery just a few days after Christmas, all due to an acquaintance finding a stolen jewel in the crop of his Christmas goose. The ending works in very naturally a demonstration of the Christmas spirit

619tzntvatl-_sx380_bo1204203200_If you are in the mood to mix mysteries with your holiday cheer, check out The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler. This wonderful book has mystery short stories for any taste — funny, supernatural, hard-boiled, or classic. Here are some of my favorites.

“The Blue Carbuncle” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A clever mystery and a lot of fun.

“The Flying Stars” by G.K. Chesterton. Father Brown confronts a jewel thief.

“Christmas Party” by Rex Stout. Archie Goodwin witnesses a murder at a party, and his boss, genius Nero Wolfe, must avoid becoming a suspect. This is one of my favorite Nero Wolfe stories because, in his peculiar way, Wolfe shows how much he values Archie.

“A Scandal in Winter” by Gillian Linscott. A young girl involves herself in an investigation conducted by an elderly Sherlock Holmes and Watson. I don’t like romance, but the romantic reason Sherlock Holmes is trying to clear a recent widow of suspicion of murder hooked me.

“The Killer Christian” by Andrew Klavan. A hit man finds salvation in a very moving and funny story with an ending that always makes me smile. I mentioned this story in my post about the author.

“Dancing Dan’s Christmas” by Damon Runyon. How Dancing Dan unloads some hot gems and avoids a nasty fate in 1930’s New York.

Bonus Stories

“Three Wise Guys” in Guys and Dolls by Damon Runyon Some crooks travel to rural Pennsylvania to recover stolen money. In another post, I wrote how much I love Damon Runyon’s Broadway short stories and to appreciate his writing style, you need to imagine the story being told with a thick New Yawk accent.

51s7yianu4l-_sx328_bo1204203200_Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha ChristieFormerly entitled Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder. I wrote in my post about Agatha Christie that this is one of my favorites among her novels. It captures my idea of a holiday family reunion going as badly as you can imagine.

What are your favorite Christmas reads, mysterious or not?

 

 

Writing Tip

scooby-doo-2063042_1280Sheer Luck Holmes

I love parodies.  And I love the Sherlock Holmes stories, so reading a Sherlock Holmes parody is a lot of fun.  But only if the parody is good-natured.  If I read a story and sense the author’s aim is to be mean-spirited, then all the fun drains out of the parody.

Below are some of my favorite Sherlock Holmes parodies.  All of them can be found in The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler, who gives an introduction to each story.  Enjoy!

The Adventure of the Two Collaborators” and “The Late Sherlock Holmes” by James M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.

In the first story, Holmes’s deductions so amaze Watson that he leaps to the ceiling, noting  that the ceiling “is much dented”.

“From a Detective’s Notebook” by P.G. Wodehouse.  I love the beginning of this story.

” A private investigator asks a group of men, ‘I wonder . . . if it would interest you chaps to hear the story of what I always look upon as the greatest triumph of my career?’

We said No, it wouldn’t, and he began.”

“Detective Stories Gone Wrong: the Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs” by Robert Barr

This one makes me laugh because Kombs find the weapon used in the crime using ridiculous deductions.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had no reverence for his creation and wrote two parodies of his own: “How Watson Learned the Trick” and “The Field Bazaar”

Writing Tip

london-244261_1280Favorite Author – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I discovered the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was in high school through the British series starring Jeremy Brett as the Great Detective.  That sent me to the original short stories and four novels.  I don’t think the novels are as good as the short stories.  I still enjoy reading the short stories and recently introduced children’s versions of them to my kids.

Back in high school, one thing that intrigued me about Sherlock Holmes was that the character had taken on a life of his own.  So many different people had written about him or performed as the character that I found it interesting to read about Holmes as Doyle originally conceived him.

The details Doyle dropped about Holmes – his pipe smoking, love of the violin, eccentric personal habits – made him seem all the more real.  As I have grown older, I have developed an appreciation for the Good Doctor, John Watson.  He’s the kind of friend all of us want or would like to be – loyal, patient, ready at a moment’s notice for adventure.  Because Watson tells almost all the stories, he also makes Holmes, as another writer pointed out, much more approachable.

sherlock-holmes-147255_1280

I personally love all the stories Watson hints at but never describes in full.  At the beginning of the story “The Golden Prince-nez”, Watson writes about:

“the repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby the banker.  Here also I find an account of the Addleton tragedy and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow.  The famous Smith-Mortimer succession case come also within this period, and so does the tracking and arrest of Huret, the Boulevard assassin”.

Doyle dropped many such teasers in the introductions to his short stories but nothing tops the one in “The Sussex Vampire”.  Holmes says, “Matilda Briggs . . . was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, for which the world is not yet prepared.”

Did Doyle add those hints to make another layer of reality, as if Holmes was so busy that Watson couldn’t possibly relate all their adventures and readers could imagine him at work in between stories?  Or did Doyle just enjoying toying with his readers?  He couldn’t foresee what those hints would generate: hundreds of short stories and books as writers use those few clues to flesh out complete adventures.  I have read two explanations for “the giant rat of Sumatra”, one pure science fiction, the other more like an adventure.  Doyle couldn’t have left better inspiration for future writers.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑