Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sniper Locater

If you write spy fiction, your hero won’t be complete without the latest gadgets to battle his country’s enemies. There are a lot of things out there that most of us never heard of, and a surprising amount of it is on the market. One of the newest offerings is a small device developed for military applications. This electronic sniper locater is called Ears Gunshot Localization System and is now available to the U.S. Army. This lightweight device is no bigger than a deck of cards, weighs 6.4 ounces, and can pinpoint the source of a gunshot in a fraction of a second. The technology works by triangulating the direction of the gunshot by analyzing the shape of the sound wave. The price is rather steep at $8,000, but the agency your secret agent works for has unlimited amounts of money, so what the heck.

Available at

Location, location, location.

Fine tuning your fiction.

An friend of mine who runs a small and successful business has told me there are three secrets of success. You must have the right location before you can succeed. I did not stop to think of the ways location could play an important part in literature until I entered a short story contest. The contest promised a short critique on each story, which seemed to be more than worth the effort. I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of the editor’s evaluation of my short piece of flash fiction, but was puzzled over one comment at the end of the paragraph. He said, “Wouldn’t this story have been better if you had set it in Seattle?”

I read and reread the story and still couldn’t get the point. Like all flash fiction, the story was rather lean, the scene happening on a street corner that could have been anywhere, USA. I have never been to Seattle. The longer I thought about the editor’s suggestion, the more I realized that even in short fiction, location can be extremely important. Here is a place where we can bring vibrant reality to a scene—even a short one—with a sentence or less. Take the following situations:

[A man senses danger as he pulls to the side of the road to examine a flat tire.] He closed the car door with a soft click that was barely audible above the faint sighing of the wind from the bayou.

Or: The thin sliver of the moon slid behind the clouds, but in the brief instant, he could see the barren landscape stretching toward the horizon.

We experience the world through our five senses. It is astonishing how seldom we employ smells, texture, and taste to our stories. You can, in fact, read through an entire book and find little except what the characters see and hear. The rich odor of food in a Chinatown restaurant, the taste of fresh artic snow on our lips, or the texture of an expensive fabric can awaken emotions and set a scene more than an entire chapter of dry dialogue or dull narrative.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Short Story, Anyone?

Tags: John Grisham, Ford County, short stories.

There are many websites on the Internet where you can read short stories for free, and a lot of us take advantage of the opportunity. Some of these sites have a comment section where the readers can give their opinion. For any given story, the comments will run from snarky to the sublime—some of the comments are actually better than the stories. The comments that heap ridicule on the author’s head aren’t necessarily bad, because all of them reflect the opinion of the individual readers. One often stated opinion is the ending of the stories. One recent comment was, “. . . too long a buildup for a one-liner ending.” Another writer said, “Your last sentence would have been appropriate for a joke, but not for a serious story.”

I have started reading John Grisham’s collection of short stories called Ford County. From the very first story, it became obvious to me that Mr. Grisham did not make this mistake, and it should cause some of us to rethink the way we have been taught to end a short story. Most essays end with some sentence that is like double punctuation, intended to nail down and give meaning to everything that went before. When Grisham gets to the end he just stops. He has already said everything on the subject clearly and concisely and there is no need to put a backstop to the story. If you are tired of reading stories about Presidents, earth shattering events, and a world gone wild, you might like the change of pace Ford County offers. The stories are earthy, and they make us remember that over thirty million people in this country live a hardscrabble existence. Grisham shows us a better way to end a good story without too much burble or slush.