Many think that fiction must be simpler because you just pull the story out of your head, but actually the building process is more complicated because you don't find the construction materials all in one place. Getting ready for a magazine article is like going to Home Depot. Getting ready to write a short story is more like beach combing.
My current story-in-progress explains the metaphor more fully. It began with a conversation Tom and I had while driving to Pennsylvania for a visit. The day started out foggy, and instead of the sun coming to burn off the fog, the weather just got gloomier. Hurricane Sandy was on its way. We talked about how often there were such gray days in the Western Pa. town where we grew up, and we wondered if the weather had affected our outlooks and attitudes. Did so much depressing weather lead to a tendency toward depression?
Interesting topic, but no short story ... yet. The conversation merely got me to thinking about the weather in general and extreme weather in particular. I remembered North Caicos nights spent watching lightning storms over the ocean and the island's frequent rainbows. One night I'd even experienced ball lightning, an electrical disturbance similar to St. Elmo's fire. Hmm, said my mind, that would make an interesting scene in a story.
As our weekend went on, the weather got worse. An event was canceled, and with the Weather Channel predicting dire things for the entire East Coast, we decided to head home early.
We were on the road again, traveling through valleys near where I once lived in near-poverty just after school. With dark mountains reaching up to dark skies around us, I remembered bits and pieces from those days, wondering when my life was ever going to start yet happy with a small circle of friends. The bars we used to frequent, filled with plaid shirts and hunting gear at odds with the disco music. A friend's mother lying on their sofa, dying of cancer. Hearing about an acquaintance who shot herself in her car, parked in front of her friend's apartment. Everyone knew they'd been more than just friends.
As Tom and I passed yet another wall of rock, something clicked and I knew I had a character to experience the ball lightning: a native of these towns we were passing, gay, alone, grieving. She began to take life from other pieces in my memory: a friend who'd taken care of her ailing aunt, tending bar, the times I've thought how difficult it must be to be gay and living on North Caicos, my sister still living in our childhood home, the feelings of being completely myself when I'm on the island. Thoughts and feelings that span almost 40 years.
It's all going into this story. Maybe things will be cut, definitely things will change, but these are my construction materials. No one-stop shopping but a gradual accrual.
Whenever it's done, someone might ask me how long it took me to write. Would they believe me if my answer was "40 years"?