Writers often mix up their writing formats. It keeps us versatile and is fun. It is fabulous for readers too.
One author who has done this again recently is Scottish crime writer, Val Penny, who is best known for her DCI Hunter Wilson series (also called the Edinburgh Crime Mysteries). Her latest book, Hunter’s Christmas and Other Stories, is Val’s first collection of short stories. It stars her lead character but also others, including characters new to Val herself.
It is not unknown for crime writers to do this. Agatha Christie is renowned for her novels though I have collections of her shorter tales on my shelves too (Poirot especially). This is having the best of all writing worlds! (Val, like Agatha, has also written non-fiction).
Short story word counts vary. The minimum word count is 1001 words (below is flash fiction). Long short stories go to 10,000 words. There are longer short stories (20,000 to 30,000) but those cross into novella territory. What is not in any doubt is short stories must be significantly shorter than novels. I was curious to discover why Val has written in such a different form of writing for her and what challenges she came across.
Writing short stories is a different beast to writing novels. Each format has its joys, challenges, and rules.
Welcome back to Chandler’s Ford Today, Val. We’ll start with the blurb for Hunter’s Christmas and Other Stories.
DI Hunter Wilson is looking forward to spending a holiday in India with his girlfriend Dr Meera Sharma, away from the cold, wet winter of Edinburgh. He looks to share his happiness with others when he is attacked by Santa Claus, he says. His team swing into action to catch his attackers but then receive information about an elf found dead in a car park and a car stolen by Mrs Claus. Are the crimes by these Christmas characters connected? Can Hunter’s team restore peace and good will to Christmas? Hunter’s Christmas and Other Stories includes tales about DI Hunter Wilson and DS Jane Renwick along with those about new and different characters in this gripping collection of short stories especially for crime fiction readers.
1. Val, I am intrigued by your switch from long form work to short fiction. What made you decide to write short stories? Did already having lead characters in place make this easier or harder to do? Did your publisher, SpellBound Books, encourage you? Is it something you’re glad you’ve done now?
Thanks so much for having me back, Allison. I have worked on several short stories over the years. Some have been written for anthologies and others for competitions or writing tasks. This has given me an opportunity to explore characters and settings I would not normally have a chance to work with in my novels.
The move to SpellBound Books gave me the freedom to submit my ideas for the short story collection to the directors and they were most enthusiastic. It was liberating to write in a different style and have an opportunity to explore different aspects of writing.
2. What challenges in the short form did you find most challenging? Was it a question of getting the word count to the right level? Were you fazed by not having so much “word count room”? (Anything over 1000 words is long to me so it can be a question of perspective).
The title story, Hunter’s Christmas, is long by short story standards, about 18,000 words. However, the other stories on the collection range from about 8,000 words into your flash fiction territory of less than 1000 words. The shorter the story, the more difficult I found it to write.
3. What did you enjoy most about writing the short stories?
This is a good question, because when I am writing my novels, I know the recurring characters and their back stories. I also know how they will react to the different situations I throw at them. What I enjoyed most about writing the short stories was researching different settings and working with characters I didn’t know so well.
Sometimes they didn’t react as I expected. It is always fun when characters resist the writer’s plans and suggest a different course of action. I also took a meander into writing a ghost story. It is the first tale I have told in this genre and I hope readers will enjoy it.
4. Do you have a favourite tale in your collection? What makes it stand out for you, if so? Reading other authors and their short stories, which would you name as favourites? (For those wanting a recommendation, check out the Wodehouse short stories and the Christie ones).
My favourite story to write was the title story, Hunter’s Christmas, because I had been thinking about writing a seasonal Hunter story for a while. However, my favourite story of all must be Visit to Venice. It gave me the opportunity to reminisce about my own visits to that magical city and to develop new characters who helped me to tell the tale.
I have read and enjoyed a couple of collections of short stories by Agatha Christie and noticed she subsequently developed some of these tales into novels. Christopher Myrebrooke has written some very funny short stories; Peter Robinson lets his imagination run wild; but I particularly enjoy Ian Rankin’s short stories. Ian’s collections, like mine, are varied and introduce characters that don’t appear in his novels. It is lovely to have that freedom.
5. Did you find editing your collection easier or harder to do than editing a novel? A consideration for collections is getting the story running order right. Get it right and the stories flow seamlessly into one another while still standing out as individual tales. If not, a reader will know something isn’t quite right even if they can’t say what it is. How did you find this aspect, Val? Was there a “natural” order for how you’ve presented your stories or did you have to try different running orders until you found the one you were happiest with? (I had to do tweaking here on this aspect for both of my flash collections but doing so paid off).
The stories in the collection are all different. I wanted to include three Hunter stories, three Jane stories and six completely different ones. That is the way the book was planned and set out. I always find editing my own work a challenge and am lucky to have a good editor assigned to me by my publishers.
6. What would you say were the advantages of short stories over novels? What would you say were the advantages of novels over short stories? (Both have their strengths).
Short stories allow the writer to tell a tale more quickly and to get to the point, but novels allow for a series of plots and sub-plots and character development denied to the short story writer.
7. What would you say a character should have in terms of qualities to be sustainable for more than one story (regardless of story length)? What makes you enjoy writing about Hunter Wilson?
I think durability of a character, like any friend, must have an attraction for the writer, even if it is only as an unpleasant character to drive a story forward. They must also be three dimensional so neither the writer, nor the reader, gets bored of them.
Hunter is interesting to me because of his background, his family dynamics and his work ethic. However, I have not yet written much about his daughter, Alison and her family. That is still to come.
8. Million dollar question – what have you found the hardest to write? The short stories or the novels? Both have their challenges as well as their joys.
The shorter the story, the harder I find it is to write. How you work consistently with flash fiction is a wonder to me!
9. Did you have a favourite word count to write to for short stories? When I’m not writing flash, my short story lengths tend to be between 1500 and 2000 words, standard for magazines, so I find myself writing to that count.
I probably find the easiest short story length to write is between 6-8,000 words. I noticed this length gives me an opportunity to explore the main characters a bit and describe the setting a little but I can still tell the story in the time it would take you to drink a cup of coffee.
10. One of my favourite short stories is about an author being haunted by his characters who come to life in front of him. Which of your characters would you most like to spend time with if they could do that? Which would you avoid? (I know some of mine would want to have a few words with yours truly about how I’ve portrayed them!).
Good question! I would enjoy the company of Hunter and his girlfriend, Dr Meera Sharma. The conversation would be good. A night in the pub with Tim, Bear, and their pals would be fun, and Jane and Rachael do give good dinner parties in which I would enjoy being included. However, I don’t think I would like to meet Connor O’Grady or his henchman, Brian Squires. They are evil and truly terrifying.
Thank you for hosting me, Allison. I hope you and your readers will enjoy Hunter’s Christmas and Other Stories.
Many thanks, Val, for sharing the joys of writing Hunter’s Christmas and Other Stories. I love the short story form (and flash fiction). Wrapping a short story up at the right point is not easy to get right. If you see a novel as like a “meal”, then a short story is like a “snack” but both have to satisfy. The two forms meet different needs but they still must meet them.
Changing from one form to the other has challenges! Well done, Val, and welcome to the fabulous world of short story writing. I hope there will be more from you in this line later. Short stories and flash fiction are perfect forms for encouraging reading because they give readers a glimpse of worlds they may want to know more about and where authors have written novels too, that is a huge advantage.
Val Penny has an Llb degree from the University of Edinburgh and her MSc from Napier University. She has had many jobs including hairdresser, waitress, banker, azalea farmer and lecturer but has not yet achieved either of her childhood dreams of being a ballerina or owning a candy store. Until those dreams come true, she has turned her hand to writing poetry, short stories, non-fiction books, and novels. Her novels are published by SpellBound Books Ltd. Val is an American author living in SW Scotland. She has two adult daughters of whom she is justly proud and lives with her husband and their cat.
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