Tag Archives: The Grapes of Wrath

Coen-Esque, You Betcha!

“A little less Fargo and a little more Raising Arizona,” an editor wrote to me once about a story in which I’d killed off one of the characters.

The old church I used as a model for the "old Lutheran Church" in the story "Dearest" was torn down long ago. This is the Catholic Church in Bruneau I grew up attending, although I also went to Sunday School at the Protestant Church up the street, since they had way better music and cookies.

The old church I used as a model for the “old Lutheran Church” in the story “Dearest” was torn down long ago. This is the Catholic Church in Bruneau, Idaho, I grew up attending, although I also went to Sunday School at the Protestant Church up the street, since they had way better music and cookies. It was fun to conceive this story in Bruneau and then pick it up and move it to Moorhead, Minnesota. I moved it back and forth a couple times and finally decided that Moorhead in Clay County worked the best for the story purpose.

First the editor buttered me up by saying that my story reminded him a bit of the Coen Brothers.

I was ready to put on hot pink lipstick just at the thought of my work reminding anyone of those guys, whose work I highly admire.

The film analogy was an especially apt one in this case, where I’d veered the story in too dark a direction for its overall tone. That comment stuck with me and has been a reminder of my tendency to write dark endings, whether or not they’re the right one for the story. The dead character was brought back to life in the aforementioned story, and the story was better for it.

But I keep having to learn the lesson over and over again with each new story. Recently, the Dogpatch reviewed a story of mine, which is due out this month in Clover: A Literary Rag, the gorgeous letterpress magazine published by the Independent Writers’ Studio.

In the small town in which I grew up, there was a guy we kids were afraid of for no justifiable reason I’ve ever known. My friend Cynda and I would ride our bikes really fast past his house on the way to school. That became the seed of the story “Dearest,” which started as my way to understand why we kids needed a monster to be afraid of, and why it was also fun to be afraid.

The Bruneau Canal in Idaho, where I originally imagined the character in the story would walk. I swapped it for the Red River that separates North Dakota and Minnesota, as a more believable place for the character to lose her money in the wind.

The Bruneau Canal in Idaho, where I originally imagined the character in the story “Dearest” would walk singing a tune about two cowboys who meet the devil. I swapped it for the Red River that separates North Dakota and Minnesota, as a more believable place for the character to lose something she couldn’t retrieve by jumping into the water. It was hard to lose the Bruneau Canal, since I grew up playing alongside it and swimming in it, but the expanse of water needed to be wider and faster moving for the scene to work.

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Scene Questions

We all can probably remember a particularly vivid and effective scene from a great story. The unmasking scene in Junot Díaz’s story “Ysrael.” The riot scene in Dagoberto Gilb’s book The Flowers. The opening scene in Mary Karr’s Liars’ Club. The death of Father in Peter Rock’s My Abandonment. Most scenes by Antonya Nelson. The ending of The Grapes of Wrath. Shakespeare’s classic Nunnery Scene. Haven’t we all thought—if I could write a scene like that, it would be a truly spectacular scene.
We came up with some questions to keep in mind as you write, and you can probably think of a lot more.
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  • What is the story genre in which this scene will take place?
  • What defines the story world in which the scene dwells?
  • What are the writer’s rules for the story world? Continue reading

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