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Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Letters of Charles Bastian

I have been working on a short story for some time now, on and off for about 7 or 8 years.  It is a piece of historical fiction which takes place in 1832 Carlisle.  I cannot stress enough how much time, research, and spirit this piece has taken.

It all started off with a movie my brother and I watched in college, The Haunting (released in 1999).  It was a terrible movie.  Everything in it was awful, from the acting to the plot to the terribly computer graphics that the director thought we would find scary.  What's worse, it is a remake of a 1963 movie which is massively superior (according to rottentomatoes.com, 86% versus the remake's 17%).  Even the parts that had the potential to be scary ended up as either simple gore or bad cinematography.

Afterwards, we discussed how terrible it was, and how we would have improved it.  I think we learned a lot about suspense and how to really scare the pants off someone just by bouncing ideas back and forth.  And those ideas started to form into a story.  It was crude at first, but we knew it would have something to do with death.  Not simply people dying, but what happens afterwards, to the bodies.  It probably didn't help that we'd seen a documentary not long before about the history of autopsies.

And that was it.  It went nowhere for a while.  Then I had to write a short story for a creative writing class and this one instantly popped into my mind.  I stayed up all night (literally) and wrote the rough draft of the piece in one go because I simply could not get over it.  What I realized was that using an unreliable narrator offered more potential for misleading and scaring the reader.  It could give the reader that "AHA!" moment, kind of like when you're watching a mystery and you solve it just before everyone else does.  Unreliable Narrator is hard to pull off, but I was obsessed.  I was also obsessed with a trend that happened decades earlier, the open-ended short story.  You might recall a story from grade school about a man who fell in love with a princess.  He was caught by the king and put in an arena, forced to make a choice.  Behind one door was a lion that would kill him.  Behind the other, a woman that he would marry then and there and subsequently be exiled with.  The princess knew which door held which thing, and he looked to her to make the decision for him.  And that's it, the end.  You don't know which door she chose for him.  To be honest, that ending kinda sucks.  I wanted to make an open-ended story that wasn't so sudden, like it was only open-ended because the author got tired and gave up 90% of the way through.

I married these three ideas into my story.  The class loved it.  But that was it.  I rewrote it for my own edification, improving upon it by adding more details that could be taken to support either ending the reader chose to believe.  And I rewrote it again.  I submitted it to a contest, but needless to say it did not win.  I didn't touch it again until now.

I decided to rewrite it again.  I grounded it in history.  Humanities Act of 1832?  Easy.  The disappearance of William Hare?  Absolutely!  London Burkers?  Of course!  I even found scanned documents from an asylum in England around that time!  Although the story has changed, I feel it still tells the same scary tale it started out as, but this time there's more than a hint of truth to it.  If you read my story and are curious about anything in it, chances are it was real and you will learn something about history.  I even emulated the writing style and took painstaking steps to ensure that no language in the piece is something they wouldn't have said in the time and place.  I learned more about the time period than I could ever put in the piece.  Sure, I could have added that Dr. Parkinson was once on trial for "scheming" to kill King George using a popgun and a poison dart, but that wouldn't have been anything more than info-dropping or name-dropping.  But I did add that the main character doubted the motives of the good doctor.  When I had my critiquing group read it, they loved it!  But it still wasn't good enough for me.  I fixed the errors I saw, tied up the inconsistencies, and addressed the concerns of the critiquing group.  Which, of course, required more research.

Now it is off to the Historical Novel Society for its 2014 Short Story Award.  In May they will send out a long-list of 10 or so entries.  These will all be published in ebook format!  On July 1st, the winner will be announced and given $2000 in addition to having the work published.  I don't know if I will win, and to be honest, $2000 is not much for the amount of work I put into the story.  But I am proud of it nonetheless, even if it loses!  I would consider the piece to be one of my best.  If it doesn't win, I doubt it will be because the piece is poor, but rather that the judge didn't like the first 5 lines.

No, you will not be seeing it on this blog.  In fact, it is doubtful I will post it even if I lose, like I am doing with the Dark Crystal Author Quest.  For starters, it can be submitted to another contest, while the Dark Crystal story cannot.  It also could be simply published.  However, if I publish it here, first, chances of it getting picked up by someone else diminish.  But do not fret!  If you know me, I may let you read the piece if you are interested.  If not, I will keep submitting it for publication or contest.  And when it does get released, you can rest assured I will be posting about that.


  1. Good luck! I think most writing work doesn't pay as much as we put into it...but the satisfaction will be huge if you win! :)

    1. Thanks! I guess every bit of exposure is also worth something for an aspiring novelist. :)