How to Write a Short Story

MICHAEL HARLAND August 15 1929

How to Write a Short Story

MICHAEL HARLAND August 15 1929

How to Write a Short Story

“Inside stuff" about the business of being funny and the menace of the laugh that turns


ONE Saturday afternoon near the end of January when the mercury had fallen well below zero and a bitter northeast wind was turning our seven-room castle into a veritable refrigerator, I made a hearth fire in the living room and decided to write a story.

The world needed encouragement.

The sun was shut out by heavy, grey, forbidding clouds. Telegraph wires hummed angrily and the wind swished and whined about the eaves like a maddened animal searching for some weak spot to break through. The few men and women about were so muffled that they moved blindly onward, driven by necessity from their homes. Drivers on sleighs and trucks sat like dirty brown bundles, faces almost hidden, their runners or wheels grinding out a weird shivery snarl as they proceeded onward over the snow-packed roads.

We had come to this hamlet on the outskirts of Montreal when the grass was green and the children eager for open spaces to play. It had proved a restful haven after a crowded apartment in the city. And when the winter came, Grace and George met the toughest days eager for the toboggan and skates, or the hand sleigh. On this particular Saturday, however, they had decided to remain indoors after a brief sojourn to a neighboring yard.

When the fire in the grate was sufficiently warm and cheerful, I sent one of the children for a folding card table and the boy for an army blanket that he uses on his bed for a comforter.

The children watched me set the legs of the table so there would be no wobble, and fold the blanket to provide a protecting pad as well as a sound absorber for my portable typewriter. Then I brought my machine from its hiding place, set it square in the centre, placing an ample quantity of good white paper on my left ready to feed the muse.

Drawing the table toward the chesterfield I pillowed myself comfortably, so that there would be little fatigue and nothing to impede three or four hours of concentration. Robert Louis Stevenson added some memorable gifts to English letters in a less comfortable position while suffering from an enervating malady; so, if the belief that “position is everything” has any significance, my 210 pounds were devoted to the experiment.

With due deliberation the paper found its way into the rollers of the typewriter. Now, as usual, I came to a dead stop. What should I write about? For the benefit of amateurs I may mention that this is almost as important as being able to write. In fact, some editors think it is more important.

After a moment’s debate I hit upon a brilliant idea. I would write a funny story. Apparently, there was something in my wife’s observation that my mystery stories were just a bit too mysterious. The way editors were shooting them back, some without even a note of regret, was far from refreshing. And the cost was mounting up.

“If you could write down half the funny stuff you try to get away with at three a.m., after lodge, as you are caught sneaking up the stairs in your socks, you might get five cents a hundred words,” my wife once remarked, as my tenth mystery story came back in the same mail with the request that I meet my typewriter installment.

“Is that so?” I had fired back. “Let me tell you something. Every artist in the world needs inspiration. You only inspire me to carry a six-shooter.”

“If I thought you meant that, sweetheart,” smiled my good old Snickersnee, “I’d buy you one of those cowboy pistols. It might make you look more like a man.”

Which all goes to prove that a writer or an actor should never marry outside his profession.

Anyway, here I was waiting patiently for something funny to suggest itself.

Just then, my wife came downstairs dressed like a Byrd explorer. She was winding my pet sport scarf about her. I could see from where I was sitting that even on this arctic afternoon the mirror had not been neglected.

“Wohin, gnädige Frau?" I enquired in the Sprache of quite a famous ancestor of hers. We tried to ditch him during the war but the flight of the German aviators from Bremen to New York revived the broken tie, and the picture of her great grandfather rose again from the depths of a smelly mothbally trunk.

She studied me with deliberation.

“Do you mean where am I going?” she challenged, head to one side and knees set like a sentry at the charge. “Downtown, of course. Have you put the car away?”

“Oui, oui, madame,” I responded. I am quite a linguist when the mood littéraire seizes me.

She glared at me: “On a day like this?”

“’Twas ever thus. But,” I added, “if you insist, I will put away these things and drive you down.”

She gazed at the stage setting of an author at work and at the two children who up to this moment had almost stood at attention, staring in wonder first at the machine, then at their mother and then at me.

“How pathetic!” she sneered. “Dickens in his study. Surrounded by his loved ones he drags from the depths of his worldly soul a carol for children. You silly old idiot.”

“Just for that you take that fifty seater marked ‘Snowden,’ with sixty-five in large type in the motorman’s vestibule,” I decided. “Trot along, Peg o’ My Heart. By the time you return I shall have a classic in nonsense.”

She looked sadly through the doorway to the street and my heart weakened a trifle. Her eyes came back to us gathered snugly in the neighborhood of a comforting fire, while the wind whistled about the eaves, and I thought she was making up her mind to stay.

“Don’t go,” I urged.

“I have to, you ass. I need a new shade for my dresser light, and the girl at Bordoni’s is helping me to choose the material.”

“Remember Belgium,” I cheered as the door slammed.

WHEN she was gone, I drew the children toward me and gave them each a hearty kiss.

“Now run along and climb into that big chair by the fire,” I commanded, “and not a word. If you want apples, they are in the dish on the buffet. There is no candy in the house. No food till suppertime. If anyone rings the doorbell, go! If anyone calls for you, go out or stay in as you please. Just don’t bother daddy. I have only a couple of hours to work.”

Neither moved. However, I tried to look a happy humorist as I straightened the paper in my machine.

“Daddy, you have two pieces of paper in your typewriter.” Grace remarked rather excitedly.

“I know that, I know that, my darling. Now let me see ..."

“But daddy, why have you two pages in your typewriter?”

“One page acts as a pad for the other. If I used only one page the punctuation marks would pierce through.”

“What kind of marks, daddy?”

“Oh, Grace, please don’t nag! Punctuation marks. When you are on farther in school, you will understand what punctuation marks are.”

Grace gave a funny little chuckle. “Daddy, you ought to see the marks our teacher makes in our work books.”

“Please, please, Grace, dear; daddy wants to work.”

“But, daddy, I just want to tell you about the marks the teacher makes. She makes them in every boy’s and girl’s book.”

“Of course, she does,” I conceded, trying to study at the same time a sentence I had written. “When I was at school my teachers gave me marks, too.”

“But, dad-ee! these are not that kind of marks.

Do you know what she does?” she asked almost beggingly, in a whisper.

“Well, what?”

“Well, when the teacher stands over us, and talks, why our books get all wet.

She doesn’t spit, she sort of sprays us.”

I had to give up after this. Grace’s eyes were as big as saucers as she explained this apparent phenomenon. To her it wasn’t laughable.

“That is too bad,” I said at last; “but don’t let us talk it over now. Where is George?”

The little gaffer had been so quiet I had missed him. There he was over at the window which had been cleaned the day before. A boy on the verandah outoutside, muffled to his ears, had placed a finger against the glass covering the finger of my boy inside and the two had traced innumerable outlines until the window looked a sight.

“Don’t do that,” I exclaimed. “Naughty boy.” Now where was I at in this blinking yarn, I mused, staring at the page before me, on which less than a paragraph had been written.

“Can Billy come in, daddy?” George interrupted.

“Yes, poor little Billy, daddy, let him come in?” Grace urged. “Eh, daddy?”

“No,” I replied sternly.

“Aw, daddy please,” Grace went on.

“No! No!” loud and sharp.

“He will come in,” George cried stoutly, standing up to me with all the defiance of a boy who knows he will not get a spanking.

“What did he say?” asked the squeaky voice outside. I looked at the youngster and remembered that he had lost his father two years ago.

“Is that young Billy Foster?” I asked surprised, trying to alter my decision gracefully. “Why, of course, bring him in.”

Grace was just like a little mother to him. For a moment or two I watched how gently she helped him off with his things in the hallway.

“Hang them up in the hall closet, Grace,” I reminded, “and all three go upstairs and play in your room.”

“But, daddy, it’s too cold,” Grace pleaded. “Please let us sit in the big chair by the fire. I will make a place on the floor for George. We won’t make a sound.”

I almost groaned. A fine humor in which to write a funny story. I gazed at the children almost exasperated, then went down to the cellar resignedly to see if the furnace would do better. The blower had been broken and the fire never got above a certain glow of heat. Finally, I brought up more coal and added to the living room fire.

“Gee, that’s swell,” said the newcomer gleefully, as fresh flames shot up. I glowered at him.

“Not a word. If one of you children utter a peep, upstairs you go. Now remember!”

I gave them each an apple, took a hearty bite out of one myself, and proceeded with my story. I must have written two pages about an amusing incident I had witnessed in France during the war when the whispering of the three inmates of my den entered upon my reverie. I had come to a pause in the story anyway and was giving some thought as to how I should proceed when I heard Billy saying in a frightened way:

“I can’t turn it, Grace.”

The room seemed oppressively hot of a sudden. I came out of my dream to breathe smothering coal fumes. My table was littered with a fine soot and the paper on which my story was being written on looked filthy.

“What the devil ...” I shot the table away from me and jumped to the grate where the draughts had been closed. A huge column of thick smoke was almost belching upward and the air of the room was smelling of tar.

“Who closed the draughts?” I demanded.

“I did,” George answered slinking away.

“It was getting too hot, daddy,” Grace put in, trying to calm me a trifle by rubbing her little hand against mine. I flung it away.

“Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you? Everything in the place a bally mess.” I walked about noticing a nice cause for a first class domestic battle in a film of dirt that lay over the furniture and particularly the lamp shades.

“There’ll be another Trafalgar about this when your mother returns,” I shouted from the neighborhood of the piano lamp with a growing uneasiness and nausea which I was eager for someone, even a child, to share with me. “Suffering dandelions!” I hissed under my breath.

By this time young Billy was quite alarmed, but my children were recovering rapidly. They always recover too rapidly from everything but an expensive illness or the desire to acquire anything any other child has.

“Billy wants to go home, daddy,” Grace said reprovingly, after the little fellow had whispered his wants to her with one startled blue eye on me. “He’s afraid you are going to hit him.”

“Hit him!” I shrieked. “Ye gods!” I wish you two were afraid of a thrashing. You get too few.”

“And you used swore words, so you did,” Grace reminded.

“Yes, so you did,” George chorused boldly. “You said . . .”

“Don’t you repeat a word, young sir. Not a syllable. Get out of here. All of you, upstairs or out, I don’t care which.”

A sullen procession filed into the hallway, and judging by the manoeuvres they had decided to dress and leave this surly bear of a father-author alone.

I came back to my machine beaten.

I read over what I had written but it sounded hollow and foolish. The clock above the now smudgy fireplace warned that the afternoon was almost over. It was long after five. I folded up my typewriter, put the table away and consigned my literary efforts to the flames.

MOMENT later the door opened and in came the central heating of all our domestic rows.

“Hello, Billy dear, you are not going out, are you?” she carolled sweetly. Billy was a favorite with all the women. “Stay and have tea with George and Grace. I’ll telephone your mamma. Well, children, Father been good to you?”

“Not much,” Grace eyed me saucily.

“He swore at Billy,” George reported with a “now behave yourself’’ look.

My wife framed herself in the entrance to the living room, still holding an overshoe in one hand:

“Did you?” she asked amazed. I just blinked. “Why is it that I can’t leave the dear children a moment without you being mean to them?” she went on. “And to think that you could swear at this poor little mite. Come here, Billy.”

“He said devil and some’p’in else,” George explained, watching me closely.

“Sufferin’ damn lions,” Grace recalled. “Oh, daddy.”

“Dandelions, stupid,” I defended.

“This is shocking,” their mother commented: “I thought you were going to write.”

“He threw it all into the fire, mummy,” Grace chuckled as she went through the motions of tearing up paper.

“Yes, I sawed him,” George laughed.

“I’m ashamed of you,” came the Great One’s final summing up.

The children followed their mother into the kitchen and I called Billy toward me.

“You know I wouldn’t swear at you, Billy, or hurt a hair of your head, don’t you, son?” I fondled him in my arms.

“Course I do,” he responded. “Gracie should have told her mummy about shutting off the grate. I wish I had a papa.”

“But you did have a daddy once, Billy. He was a wonderful man; one of the best I ever knew.”

“Mama tells me about him; I hardly remember,” he said wistfully; “but I wish I had a papa with a car. Everybody has a papa with a car.”

“Not everybody Billy, and then your mother may not want another daddy, even with a car.”

“Maybe she would,” the boy grinned. “You know every night I pray for my papa just as if he were living, and last night when I was praying I asked mama if I could pray for another papa.”

“And what did she say Billy?”

“Mama asked me who I would like for another papa and I said I would like you best of all.”

I stopped breathing, I think. I had often driven Mrs. Foster into the city and her company was far from unpleasant. Yet, I did not dare to pursue this any farther. Billy might betray my interest in his wish when he got home.

“Would you like to be my papa? Billy asked innocently.

“If it were at all possible there is nothing I would like better, old son,’ I replied cheerfully.

Billy gave me a little pat on the cheek and chuckled happily: “That’s just what mama said.”