I’ve established myself as a novelist, specifically as an author of historical fiction for young adults. But I’ve also published over a dozen short stories, mostly in themed anthologies. I don’t identify myself as a short story writer and don’t actively seek opportunities in that market – but when an editor asks me to make a contribution to a collection, I leap at the offer.
I started my writing career in fantasy, and my early short publications are in genre anthologies or magazines. But overwhelmingly, my short stories all feature some historical element – even when the topic I’ve been told to write about has been “guns” or “tricksters” or “magic and music”. Early in my career, the historical element wasn’t included consciously on my part, but I have always gravitated to times past for my story settings. Partly, I think, it’s coincidence. I wrote a short story set in Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprising, mainly because I needed a setting to add tension to the straightforward trip across Kenya in a small plane, based on my own experience, which I wanted to describe. I set my “trickster” story in 1930s America because I wanted the hero to be part of a travelling circus. I ended up learning a lot about steam trains.
I’ll often write a short story on the subject I’m researching for a larger project, to make best use of my time and effort. For the “magic and music” anthology The Horns of Elfland (edited by Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, and Donald G. Keller), I wrote about English bell ringing (change ringing) because I was working on my PhD thesis on change ringing at the time. I set the story in Oxford, where I was doing my fieldwork, but for the time period I used the late 17th century because the English Restoration was a joyous and innovative period in the development of this arcane art form. In my story, “The Bellcaster’s Apprentice,” the faerie queen Mab decides she wants to commission a set of change ringing bells from a local foundry.
Obviously, there’s sometimes a little extra research involved. But with a familiar setting, or with background in a subject I’ve already explored, I’ve found that writing short stories provides a kind of instant gratification: they don’t take long to write, the contracts are usually simple and straightforward to negotiate, and the pay is often surprisingly good. Short stories are also a wonderful way to get an insight into a time period or a historical character I’ve encountered but haven’t been able to work into a larger project. My most recently published short story, “The Color of the Sky” (in A Tyranny of Petticoats edited by Jessica Spotswood), describes the events surrounding the death of Bessie Coleman, the first black woman to gain a pilot’s license. I’d encountered and admired Bessie Coleman as a result of the background research I did for my novel Black Dove, White Raven, but there wasn’t any way for me to focus on her in the book. When I was asked to contribute to a collection of short stories celebrating American women through history and aimed at a young audience, it seemed the perfect opportunity to take a more detailed look at this fascinating and important historical figure.
The challenges of a short story are different from the challenges of longer fiction. You’ve got to paint in your setting, background, and characters with broad, quick strokes. But I don’t find it technically different from the same art in fantasy or science fiction: these genres share with historical fiction a potentially unfamiliar world to which the reader needs a brief and easy introduction. You can leave a lot up to the reader’s imagination if you provide a few simple ingredients to work with. One way that I do this by bringing in very specific images which alert the reader to the time period – in the case of the Bessie Coleman story, in the first paragraph there’s a mention of “new electric poles,” and later on the same page, passing traffic includes a “Tin Lizzie Ford” and a “milkman’s horse.” That helps the reader immediately to narrow down the time and place for the setting. On the first page of my “gun” story “The Battle of Elphinloan” (in Taking Aim edited by Michael Cart), set during the Battle of Britain, I throw in mention of a Scottish deerhound, the Firth of Forth, and enemy aircraft. Once setting’s out of the way, you can focus on plot and character. It’s not difficult once you get the hang of it!
Short stories are paid either by the word or by the story. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Association, of which I have been a member for over twenty years, currently considers professional rates to be 6 cents a word (in USD). For a 5000 word story, that’s about $300; many anthologies offer much higher rates. For five stories published over the past ten years I’ve received payment ranging from $470 to $2000, with fairly regular increments everywhere in between those figures (higher in recent years). Genre fiction magazines tend to offer less; anthologies and literary magazines tend to offer more (sometimes a LOT more). It takes me about a month to write and research a short story; it takes me two years to do the same for a novel. So, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, it’s still possible for a writer to earn his or her bread and butter as a short story writer.
But like Fitzgerald, you have to know your market and crank the stories out if you want regular income. They’re not my main source of income, so I tend to wait for a request before I make the effort, and I only produce one every year or so. But I find it a refreshing and easy way to expand my knowledge and to explore new topics and characters, as well as a good way to build a publication record between books.
Elizabeth Wein is the author of Young Adult World War II thrillers Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. Her most recent novel for young people, Black Dove, White Raven, is set in 1930s Ethiopia during the 2nd Italian-Ethiopian War. Black Dove, White Raven received the Children’s Africana Book Award in 2016.
Her latest short story is included in the anthology A Tyranny of Petticoats, edited by Jessica Spotswood.
Photo of Royal typewriter by Takashi Hososhima.