I first read Dan O’Shea’s work in a Flash Fiction challenge, however, I really got a sense of the man as I followed his tornado relief challenge where for every story he received he donated 5$ to The Red Cross. Then with amusement and awe I read Shakespeare telling his noir story. Of course, I had to follow this crazy man on the Twitters.
He has a quick wit that entertains and insights into books and stories that I trust completely. I blame him for single handily making my stack of unread books at least 1/3 higher this past year. Asshole.
At BoucherCon, which was in St. Louis this past year, we broke bread. Well, more like Bar-B-Que ribs (they were delicious) and had time to talk books, authors, and kids.
If you drop by his website, you’ll get a chance to read his insights, explore his world, and even listen to interviews with kick-ass authors.
I asked Dan to talk a little about Old School, a collection, put out by Snubnose Press. After giving this post a read, I hope you check the collection out. It really is that good.
What’s the big idea? Hell if I know.
Where do your ideas come from? That maybe the most common question writers get asked. And it’s almost impossible to answer. Ideas can come from anywhere.
Some of the stories in Old School are intensely personal in origin. The very first story, The Summer of Fishing, is largely memoir. I actually did get mugged one day when I was out fishing with my little brother because the kid had to smart off and tell this guy that he had money. Turns out he had a nickel in his pocket. Sheepshank, the longest story in the collection, is heavily informed my father’s gradual decline and eventual death from congestive heart failure – I’d like to add now that, aside from the heart failure, my Dad was nothing like the protagonist, Lou DeGatano. But that story would never have been written if I hadn’t spent four years visiting my Dad at an assisted living facility, if I hadn’t watched the myriad ways that aging tries to sap dignity and the daily battle that the elderly fight to hang on to it.
Several of the stories were written in response to flash fiction challenges. Somebody throws out a prompt and you have to base a story around it. The middle-aged businessman coping with a terminal diagnosis in Shackleton’s Hootch, the MacGyver-like hit man in Two-Phones, the laid-off father in Exit Interview, the grandfather dealing with his grandson’s crime in Absalom, the tough septuagenarian nurse in Purl Two, the contract killer confronting his own mortality in Circle of Life, and then all three of the protagonists in the supernatural-tinted stories in the last section of the collection, all of those were written in response to flash fiction challenges.
Funny, I look back at that last paragraph and I realize that, instead of telling you about the stories, I told you about the protagonists. But that’s how I work. For me, in all my writing, but especially so in short fiction, everything starts with character. I can’t start until I have someone fixed in my head – until I know how that person feels, how they think, how they talk, what they want. The story unspools from there. I know some people are bigger on plot – they like to have an outline of events in place, some kind of framework. But for me, I need a person, someone I’m interested in. Then I just drop them into a situation that introduces some form of conflict and I follow them around my head, just see what they do. It’s a wasteful process sometimes – they’ll go off on tangents that end up not serving the story. I’ll think I know where things are going, be convinced I’ve got the narrative arc all worked out, and then they’ll take off in some completely unexpected direction. That stuff makes the re-writes a bitch. But I also like to think it makes the stories a little less predictable. If I don’t know what the character is are going to do, how the story is going to end, then it’s unlikely that I’m going to tip my hand.
Inspiration can come from anywhere and can lead everywhere. The Bard’s Confession on the Matter of the Despoilment of the Fishmonger’s Daughter grew out of a conversation I had with my daughter. She was taking a Shakespeare class at college, we were talking on the phone, and she asked “What would happen if Shakespeare wrote noir?” My first response was Othello, because, really, that’s as noir as it gets. But it also gave me an itch. I love the richness and color of Elizabethan language – love its ornate character. So often, especially in crime fiction, there is this Mies Van Der Rohe less-is-more bias. This sense that we always have to cut the language back – to prune and prune and prune, trying to squeeze more and more into fewer and fewer words. Done well, that’s marvelous. But too often, I read copy that feels denatured, Cliff Noteish, like all the grace notes have been stripped away, all the architectural detail sanded off. So I decided to take a shot at a chunk of Elizabethan noir, a little first-person Shakespearean introspection. I gave myself permission to slip the linguistic leash and to use every single word that I wanted to. I loved the result. Loved it so much I wrote a whole Shakespeare as Elizabethan private dick novel. Never would have happened if I hadn’t had that conversation.
I guess, more than anything, what I’ve learned from writing short fiction is this – waiting for inspiration, sitting on your hands expecting the Big Idea Train to pull into the station, that’s a waste of time. If I can take random cues thrown out in flash fiction challenges and then just sit down and write and come up with decent stories, that proves that all I ever really needed to do is sit down and write. If you don’t have a good idea, write about a bad one. The ideas will come – they are part of the process. But nothing happens until you start.
So that question about ideas, I guess I can answer it. Ideas come from writing. Writers write. Wannabe writers look for excuses not to. Not having an idea is just one more excuse.
(P.S. — I chose that profile picture of Dan because it shows how old school he really is. Even though he says he was mashed up from a biking accident, I don’t believe a word of it. He’s a storyteller after all)
Dan O’Shea is a Chicago area crime writer. His collection of short ficion, Old School, is available through Snubnose Press. His novels, Unto Caesar and The Gravity of Mammon, will be published by Exhibit A, the crime imprint of UK publisher Angry Robot. Visit Dan’s blog at www.danielboshea.wordpress.com. Dan is represented by Stacia Decker at the Donald Maass Literary Agency.
Thanks for having me. Damn, I’m good looking.