The three reasons I have fallen in love with writing short stories

stories_vol1_cover_1600x2400F-2I am the last author you would think would be writing short stories. As a writer who tends to be prolix, the short form wouldn’t seem a good match for me. I don’t write anything short––not emails, not blog posts, not books. Twitter, forget it––the most I can do is retweet those of you who are good at being succinct. I don’t even read many short stories, (except by 19th century writers like Alcott, Wharton, and James).

Yet, this spring I took time off from doing the research for Deadly Proof, the next book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, to write my third and fourth short stories, which are now part of a collection, Victorian San Francisco Stories, that I just published on Kindle, and I have every intention of putting out more short stories in the coming year.

So what happened?

Dandy Detects, my first short story happened. Three months after the publication of my first book in my series, Maids of Misfortune, I started to write a short story about the Boston terrier I had introduced in the book. I had read that publishing an inexpensive short story was a good way of introducing potential readers to your work, so my reason was completely pragmatic. Maids of Misfortune was selling less than one ebook a day, and I wanted to feel like I was doing something to help gain it some visibility. I was only producing about two blog posts a month (remember my tendency to be long-winded), and writing a short story and putting it up on Kindle seemed like manageable activity.

Dandy Detects ended up doing more than I could have thought possible to boost sales. Stephen Windwalker picked it as one of his earliest Kindle Shorts on Kindle Nation Daily (probably the first site to effectively promote ebooks) over the weekend of July 4, 2010. This prompted so many people to buy the full-length book that Maids of Misfortune raced to the top of the historical mystery category, where it stayed for over two years.

But even more significantly—writing this story turned out to be great fun, and the readers enjoyed it. Dandy Detect also was less than 8000 words—a triumph for me since I swear I have blog posts longer than that!

While I didn’t write the next story for another two years (in this case after the publication of my second novel), during that time I started keeping track of short story plots I wanted to write. By the time I had written my third story, I had concluded that writing short stories is about more than providing a loss leader to sell other books. In fact, I believe that, particularly for authors of series, short stories can be one of the most effective methods of building and maintaining both the readers’ and the author’s enthusiasm for a series.

Reason #1: Short stories permit me to expand on events, places, and, most importantly, characters from my longer novels.

As an author of historical mysteries, I constantly struggle to maintain an adequate balance among the competing demands of character development, historical detail, and plot momentum, while keeping my novels to a reasonable length. Writing short stories that help me develop back-story, expand the roles of minor characters, and provide more historical context, have been crucial to helping me keep that balance within the novels, while satisfying my creative impulses.

For example, historical fiction readers love to read about the details of day-to-day life in the past, and they are interested in how character development provides insight into social relationships and behavior in other times. So they expect the historical fiction novels they read to be fairly long.

Mystery readers, on the other hand, tend to be partial to speed. They are generally looking for fast-paced, suspense-driven plots. They certainly want to know enough about the characters to understand their motivations, but their expectation is that every scene and every conversation is going to move the mystery plot forward by dropping clues, introducing red herrings, etc. For an example, the advice on word count for traditionally published books is that mysteries should be under 100,000 words while the top limit for historical fiction can go as high as 140,000 words.

If you add in light romance to the mix, as I do, you have a third set of expectations to meet. I need to weave in the push and pull of the romantic relationship between my protagonists, Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson, making sure there is some sort of satisfactory resolution of that relationship along with solving the crime.

To meet all those expectations and not end up with a mammoth tome that tests the patience of the reader (particularly the mystery reader) means that I often have to sacrifice minor characters and historical detail. I suspect I am not alone in being frustrated about making this sort of choice.

Writing a series is one way I deal with this dilemma. I console myself with the promise that I will get to expand the roles of these minor characters or introduce more historical places and events in future books in the series. For example, in my second book, Uneasy Spirits, I gave the boarding house maid, Kathleen, a starring role, writing a number of chapters from her point of view. In my third book, Bloody Lessons, I sent some characters off to spend more time at Woodward’s Gardens (a fabulous place in San Francisco that was a cross between a zoo, art museum, and county fair) that I had introduced briefly in my first two books.)

Another way I satisfy my urge to expand, however, has been to write short stories where these minor characters get to have center stage and where I can provide even more historical detail about Victorian San Francisco. In The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage, I took two characters that barely had speaking roles in my novels and gave them a whole adventure to themselves. This meant I could develop their distinct personalities (and some of the back story that explained those personalities), throw in detail on women’s fashion (they are dressmakers) and spend a whole scene describing the interior of the famous Palace Hotel.

In Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong, I was able to explore more of the history of Chinese immigrants in this era, including the precarious position of Chinese women and the hostile attitudes of the Irish to this ethnic group—something I had only been able to hint at in Maids of Misfortune, the novel that introduced Mr. Wong.

In my latest short story Madam Sibyl’s First Client (only found in the new collection), I was even able to write a prequel to the series. In earlier drafts of Maids of Misfortune, I had had a complete backstory for why Annie Fuller, my young widowed boarding house owner, decided to supplement her income by pretending to be the clairvoyant Madam Sibyl. But after lots of input from various people over the years, most of that back-story was cut in the interests of introducing the murder earlier and expediting the plot. In Madam Sibyl’s First Client, I was finally able to tell that story and introduce some economic detail about San Francisco in 1878 that would have never made it through the editing process with my full-length mysteries.

In fact, except for Dandy Detects, my short stories aren’t really mysteries at all, and as such are designed to satisfy those who are reading my books more for the historical setting than the mystery plot. Since I was a professional historian before I shifted to my career to writing fiction, this satisfies me as well.

Reason #2: Short stories help build and maintain the interest in my series in between books.

I am a relatively slow writer. Part of the reason for this is that I do write relatively long books (my shortest is 110,000 words and my longest nearly 140,000-––not long for historical fiction—very long for the mystery genre.) Doing the extra research needed for an historical mystery also takes time—before starting out as well as during the writing.

Added to the time spent on research and just writing these books, there is the amount of time I spend staying connected with both fans and other authors, which is the biggest part of the on-going marketing of my books. These connections are incredibly rewarding, but they still represent time taken away from working on the next book.

Finally, since I am in my mid-sixties––I spend a good deal of my time just maintaining my body in working order (smile) and visiting my grandchildren.

The result is that each book has come out about two years after the previous one. Two years is a long time to leave readers waiting. Therefore, my short stories are my way of thanking my fans for being patient and helping maintain their interest in the series in the interim.

These stories keep my enthusiasm for the series going as well. I find that my motivation to write tends to flag during the months I spend marketing a book when it first comes out and then during the months doing the basic research for the next book. I know I am not alone in this pattern. I suspect this is one of the reasons that some authors have more than one series going at a time or why they get tired of their series after a few books and move on to something else.

But I love my characters and the world of Victorian San Francisco, and I have lots of stories about them I still want to tell. I am reminded of that love when I start a short story. A day that I spend with my minor characters, hanging around the kitchen of the boarding house or moving across the city with Annie Fuller, is just what I need to rekindle my enthusiasm for the series—something I hope happens for readers as well.

And the rewards are almost immediate. I can write, edit, and publish a short story in a month’s time, and I immediately start to get feedback, in terms of sales and reviews, which is terribly motivating. Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong came out three months ago, and it has already sold 1595 copies and had twenty reviews with an average rating of 4.3.

Also, these stories don’t require much investment in time or money on the part of the reader, which brings me to the third reason I think writing short stories is good for series authors.

3. Short stories provide an inexpensive (in terms of time and cost) introduction to a series, and that can attract new readers.

This may have been the primary reason I wrote my first short story, but for me, personally, it’s now the least important reason for writing them. If I discovered that everyone who bought one of my individual short stories was already a fan of the series, I wouldn’t be disappointed. I expect that most of the people who buy my new collection will be people who have read at least one of my novels, and one of the reasons I did the collection was to provide a print edition for those fans that still prefer print.

However, when Dandy Detects was published in April of 2010, short stories were still viewed as something authors sold to magazines and traditional publishers were still successfully keeping ebook prices high—often higher than paperback print prices. Amanda Hocking had just published her first 99 cent book, KDP Select with its free days wasn’t on the scene, BookBub and other marketing sites weren’t sending us emails every day listing every discount, and no one was talking about perma-free books as loss leaders. Therefore, a 99 cent or free short story was still a pretty big deal.

Fast forward four years to 2014. Readers now can find long lists of books for free and even boxed sets of five or more books for 99 cents. The fact that a short story is free or 99 cents is no longer as much of an incentive to buy.

That doesn’t mean that short stories can’t still be an important marketing tool for those authors who are either unwilling or unable (perhaps because they don’t control the price of their books) to discount their full-length books. In this case, publishing a free or 99 cent short story is one of the few ways these writers can attract the reader who isn’t willing to shell out much money for a book by an author they don’t know.

In addition, giving away a short stories is an effective method of encouraging people to do things like sign up for a newsletter, subscribe to a blog, or like an author’s facebook page. I have now given away two of my short stories through my newsletter. This has helped grow my email list of people who want to hear when my next publication comes out.

Perhaps more significantly, short stories and novellas are beginning to appeal more to readers because they are perfect for the person who has short bits of time on their hands and a mobile device. Anyone who been traveling recently, or spent much time on public transportation, or in waiting rooms, has witnessed the rapid integration of mobile phones, tablets, and ereaders into everyday life.

Amazon, never a slouch about anticipating the desires of consumers, has responded by creating a number of features that emphasize the short form: Kindle Singles, Kindle Worlds, DayOne, and StoryFront. Just last month they introduced a new Kindle feature called Short Reads that lists selected short stories by the length of time it takes to read the story.

Summary:

For authors who write series, whether they are writing historical fiction, science fiction or fantasy, or contemporary literature of any sub-genre, I am confident that they might find writing short stories or novellas that use characters and settings from their series as rewarding as I have, for many of the same reasons.

The intricate world building that goes into creating a dystopian future or alternative universe can just as easily come into conflict with moving the plot forward or adequately developing a romance. Or, a contemporary cozy mystery series can have secondary supporting characters that readers want to know more about. See this interesting blog post and series of comments by Elizabeth Spann Craig for an example. Any author can use a short story from their series as a way of enticing new readers or rewarding existing fans. And every short story can enhance the enjoyment by both the author and the readers of the imaginary world that has been created.

So, readers: Do you have any examples of series that you feel have benefited from having short stories connected to them? Authors: Have you written or contemplated writing short stories—with or without a series connection? I would love to know.

M. Louisa Locke, June 12.2014

23 thoughts on “The three reasons I have fallen in love with writing short stories

  1. This is a great post. (If you don’t mind, I’d like to reblog this.) I have a question for you about Kindle series with short stories. Kindle now requires volume numbers, not allowing fractions. Is the best thing just to not include any volume number for the related short story (i.e. not add the series name in the series field and check the box for series)?

    • Dear Chris,

      Certainly you can reblog. I have actually stayed clear of the whole series thing. Part of the reason is that when I started I made Victorian San Francisco Mystery as my subtitle–and didn’t want to have this repeated as a series designation. In addition, I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted people eo feel they had to start with the first book in the series–so having a volume number seemed like this would happen. And the short stories subtitle is Victorian San Francisco Stories (because they aren’t all really mysteries.) So far this has been ok–with me trying to be clear in the product descriptions the other books. I may change my mind when I end up with a book four. I briefly debated making the new collection be Volume 1–but then thought–there is no vol 2 so this might confuse people–and I could tack it on as a volume number when there is a second volume. I think Goodreads may have been adding vol numbers including the fractions–but this is their decision. Don’t know if this is all the best decision–just my decision.🙂

      Mary Louisa

      • Thank you for sharing what you’ve done with your “series” and short stories. It’s useful to know because it’s a dilemma for authors (most seem to fall into the series designation, just because it’s there) and since you’ve obviously had much success with it.🙂

  2. Reblogged this on chrismcmullen and commented:
    Here, a successful author shares how she has used short stories effectively. Series authors may be interested in the comments section, as I specifically asked how she handles short stories with her series (the answer surprised me, and the more I think about it, the more her strategy makes sense). Every author is unique, but it’s always helpful to study ideas that work for some authors.

  3. I think that one of the most basic truths of storytelling is that people love stories of an interconnected world. Look at the oldest surviving stories, i.e. ancient mythologies, epics, and folktales. My sons have been reading “Journey to the West”. Despite missing much of the cultural context, they are able to appreciate the great story arc set in a specific “world”. The individual episodes are stronger for being part of the larger world, even when the reader doesn’t know everything about the larger world.

    I think this same principle is working with your short stories. They are stronger for being part of your Victorian San Francisco. “Mr. Wong Rights a Wrong” is my favorite of your stories. I think it is an exceptional stand alone short story in part because being part of your world lets you (the writer) focus on the core of the story.

    As a reader, my favorite thing about digital publishing is that it frees writers from the tyranny of print economics. I think that reader expectations will gradually change as digital becomes the primary format for storytelling. Connected stories that are each just the right length will be the sweet spot for readers and writers. The genre most in need of this is “epic fantasy”. I love the genre, but the notion that every epic has to be thousands of pages is harmful.

    • Dear William,

      Thanks for such a thoughtful response. And as another person who loves epic fantasy, I absolutely agree. Until recently, only authors selling at the level that Anne Mccaffrey was were able to use the short story and novella in print as effective companions to the main books.

      Mary Louisa

  4. It’s early days for my novel-writing career (in the midst of writing #2), but I’m watching how others who are slow-ish and long-ish writers are managing the visibility/interest issue, and what you’re doing makes a lot of sense to me. It also feels organic, like a natural part of the world-creating process. There’s a lot of stuff, especially in historical novels, that doesn’t make it into a novel but still needs to be imagined. The short stories enable this imagining and research to be used in an enjoyable way without it becoming a distracting information dump in the novel it was originally imagined for. I’ve got nearly 400K words in the files that comprise my 110K first novel, including 3K that I originally wrote as a prologue but left out in the final version. My beta readers said it would make a fun short story, a sort of “side dish” for the novel series. I think I might do just that after I bang out this second novel.

    • Dear Meg,

      That sounds like an excellent idea. And I really do find that it makes it easier as I go along not to over-write the earliest drafts–knowing that I can develop some of the themes and back stories later in a short story.

      Looking forward to the next book!

      Mary Louisa

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  8. This is a very interesting article; I saw it on Elizabeth S. Craig’s “twitterific” link list. Lots of great information here about your take on short stories. I wonder, however, if you maybe meant Amanda Hocking?

  9. Hi Louisa, Once again, you’ve provided a lot of valuable information. Thank you!

    I’ve also discovered that short stories are a good way to help readers get more information about the characters in my longer books. I actually started my new series first with short stories, and have branched out into a longer novella. If I had my wish, I’d write nothing but short fiction, but know that readers like the longer books. I also think that writing the non-mystery shorts will help attract a larger audience.

  10. And I wanted to say that I also agree on your strategy for not using the “volume” thing. It confuses people, and they feel that they can’t read one without finding the others. That’s easier these days if all the books are on Amazon, for example, but I think readers just don’t want to miss anything.

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  12. I remember reading Ellen Gilchrist’s The Annunciation in the 1980’s, and wishing there was more to read when I finished the book. http://www.amazon.com/Annunciation-Ellen-Gilchrist/dp/0316313025/ref=la_B000AQ4RMG_1_11?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1412005688&sr=1-11Then I found her short stories a few years later. Characters were drawn out further. . . it was wonderful. Loved that! She’s still going strong, so check her out as an excellent author if you have not yet!

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