How to Add Historical Context to a Short Story

10 Sep
East of the West, the story collection from Bulgarian-born writer Miroslav Penkov, was called, by the Boston Glove, one of the most exciting debut collections in recent memory.

East of the West, the story collection from Bulgarian-born writer Miroslav Penkov, was called, by the Boston Globe, one of the most exciting debut collections in recent memory. The storoy “Makedonija” is included in the collection, and you can read it here at FiveChapters.

Stories are different than novels–obviously. They’re shorter, generally with fewer characters who face fewer complications within a more narrow scope. Novels that take place over the course of a day and stories that encompass decades are the anomaly, not the rule. And yet there are writers whose stories seem more like novels. Alice Munro is one.  Her recent story, “Axis,” (published in The New Yorker and The Best American Short Stories 2012), plays out over roughly half a century.

Another writer who accomplishes the same feat is Miroslav Penkov. The title story from his debut collection, East of the West, recently won the BBC International Short Story Award. It uses a love story to give a fierce portrayal of the geography of war. Another story from the collection, “Makedonija,” traces the effects of war over a person’s lifetime, a novel’s work in a single story. “Makedonija” was published at FiveChapters, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

A man discovers the love letters sent to his wife by her old lover and reads them in a nursing home while offering advice to his daughter, whose husband is cheating on her. The story flips back and forth between the present and the past—the stories in the letters and the stories he remembers. As a result, he sees the present events against the backdrop of both personal and world history. The results are powerful.

For instance, here is a passage from the end of “Makedonija.” The old man is talking to his wife after sitting on a bench with his daughter’s husband. This is what he tells her:

“I’ve never told you this,” I say. “We never buried Brother. That was a lie. We never took him off the rope. I’d heard rumors, stories from people in our mountain, of how when mothers recognized their gunned-down children the tsarists pulled them aside and shot them on the spot. And so I told Mother, ‘I beseech you in your daughters’ blood, keep walking. Don’t say a word.’ And Mother was so shocked then she stood before my brother and didn’t even reach to touch his feet. We walked right past.”

In any work of fiction, it’s useful to ask what experience most haunts a character or narrator. That experience will likely shape, in subtle or obvious ways, the character’s decisions and reactions for the rest of his or her life. Here is a paragraph from Penkov’s story that does exactly that:

My brother came back from the war without a scratch. We never spoke of what he’d seen or done. I was ashamed to ask, and he was ashamed to say. We’d lost the war, of course, like all other recent wars, which was regrettable, since we never really lost our battles; we just picked the wrong allies. Or rather, our soldiers never lost their battles. Because what did I know? I herded sheep. So Brother joined me, up on the hills.

Of course, what happens next in the paragraph is that the war comes back for the brother.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s explore our characters’ pasts, using Penkov’s paragraph about his brother as a model:

  1. People often have multiple ways of thinking about their past: a view for when they’re feeling upbeat and a view for when they’re feeling down. How does your main character or narrator think about the past when he/she is feeling happy? What is the best version of the character’s personal history? The answer could relate to family or place, something small and intimate or large and cultural.
  2. What is the sad or pessimistic version of your character’s personal history? How does the character think about his/her personal past when he/she is feeling low?
  3. What is the main conflict from both versions of this past? What obstacle was overcome (or not overcome)?
  4. Fast forward to some point in the future. What sort of conflict would force the character to think about either version of this past? Possibilities include conflicts over love, children, property, money, and work. Ideally, the conflict should correspond in some way (though often unexpectedly) to the past conflict.

The past can affect the present in surprising ways. For instance, a happy version of the past could haunt a character who feels that she cannot live up to the standard set by previous generations. A dark version of the past could feel like an anchor on an otherwise buoyantly happy person. The point is to explore the ways that, as Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Good luck.

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4 Responses to “How to Add Historical Context to a Short Story”

  1. michaelalexanderchaney September 10, 2013 at 8:02 p09 #

    A great exercise. Will be using this one a lot. Thanks for this!

    • michaelnoll1 September 10, 2013 at 8:02 p09 #

      Great! Glad that it’s helpful. Good luck with your writing.

  2. wee1one September 10, 2013 at 8:02 p09 #

    I’ve often thought about the difference between the past we remember and the past we tell others. But I love the idea of different versions depending on our mood – that is so true! Can’t wait to try this with my characters.

    • michaelnoll1 September 10, 2013 at 8:02 p09 #

      Thinking about mood is a way to view backstory through an emotion. John Gardner has a famous exercise that asks you to describe a barn from the viewpoint of a farmer whose son has just died. You’re supposed to convey the emotion through the description without using any direct references to what happened or the emotion. This is a way to approach voice and POV from another angle.

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