By CLAY MORE (Keith Souter)
I am a great fan of short stories and over the years have built up a collection of anthologies. They are not just any old anthology though. They are all books that were published in the thirties, forties and fifties and within their covers are tales, yarns, call them what you will, that appeared in the old pulps and the vast number of magazines that once used to provide a regular outlet for fiction writers. Indeed, I first seriously thought of becoming a writer after I discovered a book of short stories devoted to crime fiction. I thought how wonderful it must be to write a story that finds its way into such a book. A story that can just sit there buried in a book as it gathers a patina of dust, but which can spark the imagination of a reader years later.
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow
Every writer wants their creation to go out into the world and spark the imagination of the reader. They want it to be a success. Some stories have enjoyed fantastic success. Take Three-Ten to Yuma, for example.
Many people imagine that this story by Elmore Lenard was a novel. It has attained cult status and spawned two movies, both of which were called 3.10 to Yuma. The first was made in 1957, starring Glen Ford and Van Heflin. Then, fifty years later, it was remade with Russel Crowe and Christian Bale.
But it is just a short story!
OK, I take that back. It is not 'just' anything. It is in fact a great short story by a great writer. It is a good example, I think, of a story that has grown in the telling. It is a true precious little acorn that became a mighty oak. It grabs your attention straight away, stimulates your imagination with superb word descriptions, cranks up the tension factor and it delivers a satisfying conclusion. Finally, it is timeless. It is as fresh as when it was written sixty years ago. It first appeared in Dime Western Magazine, in March 1953
The plot in a nutshell
The story is about Deputy Paul Scallen and his task of taking outlaw Jim Kidd to Yuma prison. They have to catch the 3.10 to Yuma, the only snag being six ruthless members of Kidd's gang.
That basic plot has been used in the movies as well as the short story, but the characters' names were changed both times.
One of my favourite short stories is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber. Once again, many people imagine that it was a novel, but it was a short story published in the New Yorker in March 1939. It is apparently one of the most anthologised short stories in American literature. And I can well see why.
Walter Mitty is a fantasist. I would imagine that virtually every writer could empathise with him. He is a mild-mannered, good fellow. He goes shopping with his wife and day to day events are changed in his imagination so that he goes off into little flights of fantasy. He becomes a pilot, a hero, a great surgeon. And the transitions are all done superbly by the master stylist, James Thurber..
Like Three-Ten to Yuma, The Secret life of Walter Mitty was made into a movie in 1947, featuring Danny Kaye. It is a humorous movie, but it is not in the same league as the short story.
And of course, the very name of Walter Mitty as entered common parlance. People talk about people being 'a regular Walter Mitty,' or they describe someone's fantasies as being Mittyesque.
Really, how fantastic to have thought up such a character, to have crafted such a tale.
But back to Elmore Leonard. He is one of the great writers. He began writing westerns in the 1950s, then crossed genres and started writing crime, thrillers and screenplays. He has garnered success in so many fields and produced some fabulous novels.
He was certainly one of my biggest influences, not only as a western writer, but as a crime writer. I like his grittiness, his use of dialogue and the twists and turns he puts into his work. In my own stories, whether they are westerns or crime novels I try to put in little twists and attempt to mislead the reader as much as I can.
I read that Elmore Leonard has been called the Dickens of Detroit. I like that, since it puts him int the league of the greats. And remember that although dickens is regarded as one of the great English novelists, yet he was essentially a serial writer. He write in segments for the magazine market. Acorns and oaks again.
I leave you with what is said to be Elmore Leonard's main tip about writing. It was something like this:
'If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.'
May you find your own little literary acorn.
***Clay More has contributed short stories to the Western Fictioneers anthologies The Traditional West, Six-guns and Slay Bells and is currently writing his series of ebooks about The Adventures of Doctor Marcus Quigley, dentist, gambler and bounty hunter, published by High Noon Press. The third in the series The Covered Trail is due out soon.
He also writes the character of Dr Logan Munro in the Wolf Creek series. He has a short story about Doc Munro in the forthcoming Wolf Creek 6, which is an anthology - Hell on the Prairie.