So many stories, so little time…

“Where do you get your ideas for stories?” or “Where did you get THAT idea for THAT story?”

Writers get asked this many times, over and over and over and…

My response is, “OMG, there’s a story idea in EVERYTHING. My problem is picking out the best ones, and then finding the time to write them.”

Stories need characters dealing with conflict. So here are a few that I’ve got in my “ideas” journal:

  • A boss bullies his employees and blames it on his Tourette’s syndrome (look it up!), until he’s confronted by the lowly mail-room clerk
  • Two friends who are afraid of snakes must remove a black snake from their henhouse
  • A pair of college students take summer jobs at a seaside resort and become romantically involved; one loves the ocean, the other hates it
  • A part-time rideshare driver overhears a customer planning what sounds like a crime, but might not be

See? You can go anywhere with these. I probably won’t have time to work them up into stories, so feel free to borrow them!

NC Writers Network

I’d like to give a quick shout-out to the NC-writers.org, which—among many other valuable services—offers a critiquing and editing service for writers of all stripes (essayists, poets, fiction writers, screenwriters).

I’ve used this service a few times for short stories that felt a little “off.” When I’m having trouble with dialogue, or feel that I’m getting bogged down in heavy passages of description, or I’ve tangled my characters in too much back-story, or I need an authenticity check-up, I can ask for help from an experienced editor with a sharp pen.

ncwriters.org

Write that Story! Fall Fiction Class at UNC-A

I’ll be teaching a fiction-writing class via Zoom for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UNC-Asheville this fall. Write That Story! Elements of Short Fiction runs for eight weeks on Mondays from 2 to 4 pm, beginning September 20, 2021 in the Reuter Center.

The course is designed for beginning to intermediate fiction writers, published or not, who are actively writing fiction, would like to sharpen their writing skills, and are ready to share drafts of their writing with peers in a workshop setting. Come prepared to write, share your work, and give thoughtful feedback about the work of others. Enrollment is capped at 10.

Update: The class is full, but there’s a waiting list in case a slot becomes available.

The fall course schedule and enrollment information are available at https://olliasheville.unca.edu/

May 3: “Writer Talks!” Interview

Here’s a link to my Writer Talks interview on May third by Elizabeth Ann Atkins at Two Sisters Writing and Publishing. We talked about the craft of writing, the challenges, and the inspiration for the story “Fathering,” published on the Two Sisters website at ttps://www.twosisterswriting.com/winners-1/fathering-by-sarah-blanchard

YouTube link to the interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uvzSYygKLs4

I also read a few paragraphs from my novella, Lizzy Baby.

“Rift Zone” on PenDust Radio

“June sits in half-lotus on the edge of the mattress and narrows her eyes against the volcanic glow. She finger-combs her short, dirty hair off her forehead and watches him load the gun, sliding a single shell into the chamber.”

Rift Zone

When Kilauea volcano erupts in May 2018, back-to-the-land farmers June and Lani must decide whether to evacuate, or stay and protect their Big Island homestead against everyday threats like feral pigs and potential looters, or flee the dangers they cannot control. In the process, they learn where the fault lines are in their own relationship, and whether they can survive a disaster that may be immediate and cataclysmic.

“Rift Zone” is live on PenDust radio’s podcast! Narrator Rebekah Nemethy does a wonderful job of capturing the voices and the story of my fictional characters.

You can listen here at https://pendustradio.com/fiction/rift-zone/

It’s a 45 minute podcast from a 5,000 word story, so pour a favorite beverage, put your feet up, and enjoy.

Lizzy Baby – a novella

Lizzy Baby has received a five-star review from Readers’ Favorite.

“A somber coming-of-age novella…a gripping story that made my blood run cold in one chapter and made my blood boil in the next.” –5 stars, Trix Lee, Readers’ Favorite

“…an authentic look at the active childhood of a shy ten-year-old girl… [whose] parents have unwittingly allowed an abuser to gain their trust. …Lizzie, more perceptive than her parents, learns to trust her own voice. Her insurrection is both believable and triumphant.”
–C.R. Hurst, author of the Jane Digby’s Diary series

“Well written with a sense of dread building underneath, Lizzy Baby tells the tale of young Liz, teetering on the precipice of early womanhood, accelerated by the harsh facts of a religious, rural farm life. Hard lessons in this one, but all too real. Recommended.”
–D.W. Whitlock

See https://read.amazon.com/kp/embed?asin=B08NGYSBVY&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_9YDVRGQGYR39EYFHC7R4

Fathering

She leaves the ice cream shop early and drives to the school at the designated time, with her white shirt and black jeans still reeking of sugar and cream. Picking up their son isn’t usually her job, but right now all the jobs are hers.

She speeds, just a little, on the empty straightaway past the hillside pasture where red cows graze behind a tumbled-down stone wall, topped with rusted barbed wire strung haphazardly from crooked posts. Calves, she thinks. He will want to see the babies.

She won’t arrive early but she won’t be late, either. She must be on time.

Their boy sits alone on a gray wooden bench outside the brick-faced primary wing, his battered red backpack next to him. For just a moment, she watches him swinging his feet and eyeing the other second-graders who swirl in bright clusters behind the schoolyard’s chain-link fence.

She angles the car into a space and steps out to open the curbside rear door. He runs to her, bumping his pack against her hip as he slings it into the back seat. He scrambles in and sits in the middle. When she climbs behind the wheel, their eyes connect in the rear-view mirror and she smiles…

Read the rest of the story at:

https://www.twosisterswriting.com/winners-1/fathering-by-sarah-blanchard

Unfinished Business

“Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.”

Ernest Hemingway uses these words to describe the writer Harry, the main character in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. As Harry lies dying, stranded in the remote African bush, he remembers many incidents from his life, good stories that he felt he should have written. Like many of Hemingway’s stories, this one explores what it means to be a human being, as well as a writer—and how tempting it is, when life is easy and secure, to let the great intentions and grand goals slide away. To procrastinate. To never quite get around to what you feel you should do, or could be doing. Harry rationalizes his failure to “write the good stories” by not knowing enough “to write them well.”

Waiting to “know enough” before you start writing means that you likely won’t write, or do much of anything else. Harry has lived through war, travel, hardship, and conflict on several continents, in precarious times and places, but his death comes from something small and simple: a scratch from a thorn that, left untreated, becomes infected. He dies alone, on a failed safari with a group of paid attendants and a wealthy wife he doesn’t love.

We will never “know enough” to begin telling the good stories. We simply have to begin from where we are, and put in the hard work to make the writing (or whatever) as good as we can.

Tempis fugit, carpe diem.

Community Book Merchants

Where would we be without our independent booksellers?

When I lived in Raleigh, my second-favorite happy place (after our back yard and the woods) was Quail Ridge Books in North Hills. It’s a magnificent space, upstairs and down, that since 1984 has offered fascinating selections of best-sellers, local works, and more obscure titles. Over the years, they’ve featured discussions, events, children’s hours, town hall meetings, and local author readings. I took a wonderful fiction writing class there in 2019, through the Redbud Project, which gave me the courage to write more, write better, and gain the confidence to find my voice and send my work out into the world. And I found other, smaller shops: Pauper’s Books (recycled favorites, comics, a great children’s section with terrific prices) in Clayton, NC, and the tiny, eclectic space occupied by So and So Books on Person Street in Raleigh.

By the time we moved to the mountains and settled in Weaverville, NC, in May of 2020, I’d become a regular visitor to Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café in Asheville.

The pandemic, of course, has brought drastic changes. I can’t just stroll in off the street or stop in for a cappucino at Malaprop’s. To shop in person, I now need to make a “browsing appointment,” so the staff can control traffic and hygiene. Book clubs and children’s hours are Zoomed, and so are author readings. Miss Malaprop’s weekly Storytime (ages 3 to 9) is now livestreamed on Instagram.

Housebound by the virus, we are reading more. And many people automatically turn to the behemoth, the Amazon machine, to deliver all their needs right to the doorstep. (I was a very early adopter of Amazon—I still have the travel mugs, back from when they needed to convince people to buy books on this new-fangled sales platform called the Internet, so every purchase came with a free coffee mug.) And Kindle is even easier, no delivery truck involved! Just a click or two and shazam! instant gratification.

But our relationships with a book is more than just a click and a download, or two clicks and a scuffed brown box (often dented or damp) dropped on the (sometimes wrong) doorstep. By whose recommendation do we choose our next intimate reading experience? Whom can we ask about the best books to talk about on a date? What’s the top choice for turning a reluctant pre-teen into a voracious, lifelong reader?

See, Malaprop’s actually has a browsing category called Quaranteen Reading. And Blind Date Books. No, the Blind Date Books aren’t for you to bring on an actual blind date (though maybe you should, just in case it doesn’t go well). Instead, you select a category based on the kind of books you like to read, and the staff picks your next book for you, often at a discount. A very popular program!

And there is truly nothing better than walking into a bookstore, smelling actual books (paper, cover boards, bindings, glue), feeling their weight and heft. Knowing that these solid repositories of WORDS will live on, beyond the battery life of your Kindle and even beyond your lifetime. A treasured book—the real thing, perhaps with an inscription and an autograph—can be a gift, a legacy, an inheritance.

And once the virus loosens its hold on everyone, you can ask Malaprop’s to host a pop-up wedding. Just try that on Amazon.

Storytelling

Stories are vehicles for witnessing truth, for creating histories, revealing secrets and solving mysteries. People in my family have always been storytellers, but not always reliable ones. (Is this narrator reliable? Is this my truth, his truth, wishful thinking, or somewhere on the edge of plausibility?) And the stories tended to be only pretty ones. Darker topics got glossed over, painted with roses, or quietly ignored.

Only one person, my mother, would speak of anything negative, or difficult, or tragic. She was the self-described pessimist of the family.

All families have secrets, but most people born into most families get to know at least some of the past and some of the secrets. If you’re adopted, of course, you may not know much at all.

I have always felt adopted, though I was born into a family with two parents and four siblings. I am more than two decades younger than my nearest sibling; my brothers and sisters had all left home by the time I was born; and my father died when I was 13. So I’m the product of a single-parent home, too, because in my teenage years, it was just Mom and me, living on her small earnings as a housecleaner and babysitter, and the Social Security check that arrive on the third of each month.

Between the two world wars, my parents raised a complete, close-knit family—two boys, two girls. My father worked as the dairy-herd manager and my mother kept house, on the farm where they raised their children. They survived the Great Depression. Both boys served in the Second World War and came home mostly intact. In 1949, my parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.

All this, before I was born, in 1950.

Nearly all of the family histories, and therefore nearly all of the family secrets, were never disclosed to me (except my own). When I asked my much-older sisters about war or poverty or other hard times, I was flatly told, no, they couldn’t recall much of that. They only wanted to remember the good things, they said, and I was asking about troubles that did not need attention.

Apparently I was always too young (even after I married, graduated college, bore a son) to hear anything negative, except from my mother, who only hinted at certain difficulties. “Everyone says your father was a saint,” she told me after he died. “He wasn’t a saint, you know.” No, I didn’t know. I thought he walked on water, so what did that mean?? She wouldn’t say.

Left with not much except the repeated banalities, “Life was so good on the farm.” “What a wonderful place to grow up.” “Our parents loved us all so much!” I’m left to re-construct, or invent outright, the lives that influenced me, brought me into being, and then told me little or nothing that I actually wanted to know.

So my stories are my own now, reconstructed to be as close as I can, to what I know is true.