My series stories are inevitably based on characters first. When a new Bruce Kohler Mystery bubbles up, it starts with Bruce and Barbara and Jimmy wisecracking in my head. If I hear Diego and Rachel or any of their kin or descendants, I know another entry in the Mendoza Family Saga is on the way.
My standalone short stories are another matter. In them, character grows organically from the ineffable yet essential quality we call voice and from ideas for plot elements and situations. The two, plot and situation, are not exactly the same thing, although situation fuels plot.
My series stories are both told largely in the first person from the point of view of a male protagonist. Bruce and Diego have strong voices that are entirely different from each other's and also entirely different from mine—one of the great advantages of writing in a gender not one's own. Bruce might say, "Jimmy thinks I'm leading with my dick again." Diego might say, "I talked seriously to Rachel about the possibility of rape, because if she were taken by soldiers, I did not want her to be taken unawares." Anyone still not understand what "voice" is?
When I wrote "A Work in Progress," I started out by setting my scene in Florida, which was the theme of the anthology I planned to submit the story to. I wrote:
Giant fans rustled all around me: high overhead, the vast leaves of the palm trees, and on either side of the creaking wooden walkway under my pounding feet, saw palmettos in constant motion as armadillos threaded their stealthy way beneath them. The only other sounds were the jingling of crickets and the occasional cry of an unseen bird.
Very pretty. Evocative. The only trouble was that it wasn't my voice. There was an "I" with "pounding feet" hiding in there among the palms and palmettos. But I knew at once that I couldn't write a whole story in that voice. I wrote:
I had to admit the little literette could write. She had certainly captured the ambience of the terrain around the North Florida center for the arts where we had both been awarded coveted associate residencies for three weeks, with the proverbial room of our own and daily workshops with an acclaimed Master Artist. Calendula Faulk was one of that rare breed, a crime novelist whom the literati took seriously. Along with her Edgars and Daggers, she'd been shortlisted for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. The eight associate artists she'd hand picked came from all over the country. We ranged in age from twenty-two—the precocious Miss Muppet—to sixty-two. That would be me, currently refusing to divorce the man who'd left me for this clever little tart.
And so Hester the rejected wife, in whose tart (sorry!) voice I certainly could write a story, because it resembles my own narrative voice, was born.
What's any Bruce Kohler mystery about? A recovering alcoholic with a smart mouth and a heart of gold in New York. A Mendoza Family Saga book or story? A Jewish brother and sister who were kicked out of Spain in 1492, sail with Columbus, and end up in Istanbul where Rachel gets a job in the Sultan's harem—not that job. In my standalones, no matter how strong the protagonist's voice is—or the narrative voice, if the story is in the third person—that's not what animates the story.
"A Work in Progress" is about a love triangle that erupts during a writers' workshop at an arts center in North Florida. "Reunion" is about how the past strikes a woman who encounters two old friends at a college reunion. See? The characters are important. But the story is about the situation—inevitably, one with potential for conflict—on which a plot will be built as the author writes the story.
I'm going to list a series of statements from elements of the two stories that came from life—or from my head as I write. True or false? Answers will not be provided below.
I've attended several college reunions.That's thirty, and I could go on till the cows come home. Where do my ideas come from? They just keep pouring out of me.
I've attended a writing workshop at an arts center in Florida.
I've attended a writing workshop at an arts center in Georgia.
I've been the master artist at a writing workshop.
I've had a man I loved stolen by another woman.
I've had a friend sleep with a man I was seeing after I asked her not to.
I've been rejected by a man I was in love with.
I've been rejected by every man I was in love with.
I've been widowed.
I got pregnant in college.
I had a close friend who got pregnant in college.
I've had an abortion.
I had a baby and gave it away.
I had a close friend who had a baby and gave it away.
I've had a baby by a married man.
Someone I know refused to give her husband a divorce.
Someone I know refused to give his wife a divorce.
I've had a major car accident.
I've tried to commit suicide.
I was an English major.
I wasn't an English major.
I have a graduate degree in English.
I've never taken the Graduate Record Exams.
I quit school to support a husband who later divorced me.
I've swum with sharks.
I've swum with dolphins.
I've been in a love triangle that included three-way sex.
I've been in a love triangle in which everyone got hurt.
I've been in a love triangle in which I got hurt the most.
I've never been in a love triangle.