This year’s winner of the WD Short Short Story Competition is Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz. In under 1,500 words, Trupkiewicz’s story captured our attention with its simplicity and strength. “Poetry by Keats,” which you may read here, is the story of Marianne, who has grown too comfortable in her relationship with Nick, whom she plans to marry. Yet, she finds herself drawn to Jarrett—a near-total stranger who visits her after hours at the diner where she works. The internal struggle she experiences drives the plot.
In this extended Q&A, Trupkiewicz describes her inspiration for the story, the keys to a successful short story, and more.
What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing a successful short story?
Success is what happens when you write because you can’t bring yourself not to write, because the story or poem or novel burning inside you demands to be written with an insistence and passion that overrides everything else in your life. The greatest challenge to writing a short story, for me, is the inevitable word limit; there’s nothing more intimidating (and, yet, necessary) than sitting down to write with a word limit (or some other imposed parameter) looming over me.
Describe your writing process for this story.
I used to think that writing short stories was impossible. Really, who could fit an entire story, with characters and plot and setting and everything else the nebulous “they” say you need when it comes to writing fiction, in a few hundred or thousand words? Friends and family who know my writing style describe it most kindly as loquacious, so I really can’t explain the success of “Poetry by Keats” any more than I can explain why I write in the first place. It was something I had to write because it demanded to be written.
Did you have a certain inspiration for this story?
My inspiration for this story, actually, came through years of observation. Have you ever noticed that a lot of men, particularly young men, drive with one hand or even just one wrist on the steering wheel? There’s something simultaneously safe and dangerous about that: safe because I know a man is an excellently capable driver when he handles a vehicle like that, and dangerous because even then, I never know what the travel or the road might throw in the way to make the situation suddenly not safe anymore. I really started the story with Nick, actually, instead of Marianne (my protagonist). What kinds of men drive with that kind of assurance?
How long have you been writing? How did you start? Do you write full time?
I’ve been a writer for sixteen years. I started writing picture book fairy tales when I was in second grade, as a school assignment, and then my teacher gifted me a copy of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and I knew I wanted to be known some day for my ability to write something with that same epic grandeur and staying power. One of my goals is to have the flexibility to write full time.
Who has inspired you as a writer?
I have an atypical answer to this question. My greatest inspiration for writing what I write is the Christian fiction market, and that inspiration has been negative rather than positive. I’m an unashamed Christian, but a lot of Christian fiction reads flat and unlikeable to me, where the biggest problem a character faces is his or her salvation. I decided years ago, in frustration, that I wanted to write Christian fiction that was actually lifelike and realistic, even if it meant using curse words or including sex or violence, because real people are flawed, hurting, multidimensional people who make mistakes, hit rock bottom, have regrets, enjoy their sexuality, are driven to commit violent acts, swear when the need arises, and don’t have all the neat, tidy answers at the end of the book.
What genres do you write in? Do you generally just stick to short stories or flash fiction?
I usually only write short stories under duress because I prefer a full-length novel (or, better yet, a series) with which to really come to know my characters as intimately as possible. I write supernatural thrillers and romantic suspense, any combination thereof, always with my faith as the foundation, and I’m currently dabbling in paranormal thrillers.
Describe your typical writing routine.
In a word (or three): sporadic, at best. I write when an idea seizes me and won’t let go, or when a character walks into my head and introduces himself or herself and won’t shut up until I’ve “written them out,” in the words of L. M. Montgomery. I wrote my first novel (a regrettably sappy romance that I’ve since relegated to recycling) in three months, when I was in high school, because the writing bug bit me and I couldn’t refuse.
How would you describe your writing style?
My writing style is always evolving. From all the years I’ve spent in academia, I tend to wield a certain professional formality in my diction, almost as a reflex, but that kind of style doesn’t cut it when I’m writing fiction or dialogue. “Poetry by Keats” is an easy, informal style, more dialogue and action than internal thought, so it flows the way Marianne experiences her life. I also usually write what I believe (this sentiment is only partly tongue-in-cheek): “Why use a single word when a paragraph or two will say the same thing?”
What are the keys to a successful short story?
A successful short story is the one that you couldn’t wait to get written because the characters were so alive in your head that you found yourself holding whole conversations with them (you know your characters actually exist, whether everyone around you believes it or not). Short stories mean limiting the number of characters you include, and even picking just a single scenario to focus on, because you don’t have the kind of time you would in a novel to add subplots and layers. I prefer the fast pace of more dialogue and conversation than description, but that’s a personal preference.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?
A spiral-bound college-ruled notebook. I do all my writing on a computer, but I write down scraps of dialogue, descriptions, plot points, outlines, and lists of character names in the notebook that I always carry. I have whole shelves of notebooks, all packed with material.
Where do you get ideas for your writing?
Anything can be an idea for writing: a word, an impression, a picture, an emotion, a conversation, a random thought, a quote. When I’m in the middle of writing something, and an idea occurs to me for another story or novel, I write down whatever inspired me as well as the idea itself, so I can jog my memory when I look back at it. I am a word person above all, so I tend to latch on to lines of dialogue from books or movies first thing for my inspiration. Take such a sentence out of its original context and give it a new context with new characters, and you’re off and running.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
I was privileged to take several classes on writing suspense from successful thriller author Robert Liparulo at a writing conference, and in one of the classes, he said that reading books about writing doesn’t get anything written. Writing gets the story written. I resolved to stop using writing books to procrastinate and excuse myself from never finishing anything, and he has been absolutely correct.
What are your goals as a writer: for your career and your work?
It sounds trite to say that I want to be a published novelist one day, but I’d be lying by omission if I left the sentiment out of this interview. I’m in the middle of writing a supernatural thriller, and I have a series of eight or ten books planned out of this first project. And I’d like to publish a poetry chapbook, having only recently discovered that I really enjoy writing poetry as well as fiction, thanks to my poetry professor from my undergraduate studies.
Any final thoughts or advice?
Nothing comes to mind, really. If you’re called to be a writer, and you’d rather write than breathe, then I won’t be able to say anything to convince you to stop doing what you’re doing (not that I’d want to). If you’re casting about for a calling, writing is as good as any, but it demands that you be willing to “stand naked in the wind,” to quote author Norma Johnston, and bare your soul and passion to everybody for their collective judgment. If you can do that, and still want to write more than you want to breathe, you’ve found your calling.