Richard Peck

How to Write a Short Story

You saw something today that would make a short story. I did.

I was flying back home to New York this afternoon, in the aisle sear. We were buckled up for the approach over Manhattan island and that curve across water to LaGuardia Airport. How many times have I made that trip with nothing more in mind than wanting to get on the ground and in a cab and home? Today, I looked aside at the man in the window seat, and he was crying. His hand was over his eyes, and his face was wet with tears. I looked past him, and we were flying directly over the site of the World Trade Center. Its empty footprint.

I don’t know his story, and I couldn’t ask I’m not the TV guy with the thrusting mike, trying to interview Great-grandma Breckenridge in “The Three-Century Woman.”

I write fiction – novels and, as you know, short stories. I go away and think about that moment on a plane. I think about the man next to me, about his life and his laptop and what he’d lost. What we all had lost.

My mental files are full of such moments, and other people’s memories. Some of them hark back to childhood, still offering up the voices and settings of “Shotgun Cheatham’s Last Night Above Ground” and “By Far the Worst Pupil at Long Point School.”

Fiction isn’t a press release (however inaccurate). It isn’t real life with the names changed. You don’t write about your grandma. You write about the grandma you wish you’d had. Fiction isn’t what is; it’s what if?

What if the man beside me on the plane had turned and spoken? How would I have answered?

There may be a story in that, someday when I’m not so near tears myself. If there is, I’ll make it as real as I can, with special care about the voices. But it won’t be anything that actually happened. It will have a different shape, a beginning, a middle, and end. At the end change will have taken place. That’s all I know so far.

Something in the real world jogs or jars, and you tuck it away. We write from observations, not experience. It’s easier to write about other people, maybe because you can see all the way around them, and the backs of their heads.

I was a kid once, listening to my aunt Geneva tell me about the first time she glimpsed the great world, at the world’s fair of 1904. And so a half century later I could write “The Electric Summer.”

I was a teacher once, and that’s when I met Gene in “I Go Along,” except he didn’t get on the bus. From my teaching days, lockers still slam in my brain, and in “Priscilla and the Wimps.”

You saw something today too. What was it?

– Richard Peck
(transcribed from Past Perfect, Present Tense by Richard Peck

As a prolific writer who is insanely mum about his private life, this much I do know about Richard Peck.

1) He writes exclusively on a typewriter.

2) He’s a Methodist and Republican who is vehemently anti-censorship.

3) He’s published notable works like Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt; The Last Safe Place on Earth and A Year Down Yonder. His latest, On the Wings of Heroes, is about America during World War 2 seen through the eyes of a Midwestern boy, Davy Bowman.

Thank God for Wikipedia.


~ by croatoa on May 12, 2007.

2 Responses to “Richard Peck”

  1. what is the author trying to say

  2. He is trying to say that you can get inspirations for stories (or other stuff) anywhere if you just watch the world around you. But on the other hand he writes that fictional stories aren’t the real world – they are a second possibility, the result of “what if …”-thinking.

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