How a Long Story Became a Short One

I’m often asked if I knowwhen I am ready to write a storyif it will be a flash fiction piece or a longer one. The answer is, in general, I do know ahead of time. I know that I have just enough of an idea to fill a page, or much more to say that will take up many pages. But that’s not always the case, as in the writing of “The Strongest Man in the World,” my flash piece that appeared in HFR #48.

I can never anticipate what will grab me and hold my attention enough to make me find time in my hectic life to explore it in story form. But news headlines often inspire me. When I saw the online headline about the death of Joseph Rollino, dubbed The Strongest Man in the World by some, I read on. And was intrigued. The setting, his hometown of Brooklyn. The accident, caused by a woman whose car horn malfunctioned. I loved the poignancy of the piece, and imagined the neighborhood congregating around the tragic scene in the middle of the road that day. And the irony of the century-old Strong Man being felled, not by poor health, but by technology, so to speak, and human error.

So, I delved into the research on this project. I read many books as background history, rented videos about Coney Island, and took copious notes, with every intention of having the piece be a long one.
Then I sat down to write it. And nothing happened. That’s one of the pitfalls of being a writer. You just never know if you have the story in you, in reality; if it will come out, after all, on the page. I just sat there with all these notes surrounding me, and got nothing. So, I walked away from it for a few days, and gradually, I began to realize I wanted to tell the point of view of the woman who caused the accident, as that seemed to me to be a second tragedy. And I am always conscious of the caregivers who have to come in on an accident scene, and experience on a daily basis what many of us may experience only once or twice in our lives.

And I came to the sad conclusion that I had to throw out most of my research. And that for me the story, as in many of the flashes I write, was contained within just a few intense moments. Another writer could choose to stretch out those moments into 20 pages, but my instinct is to condense.

So, condense I did. And condensed again. And again.

And in the end, I didn’t miss what I left out, but all the research I did made its way into the characters and into the tiny, unique, informed details that make a flash stand out. And I was happy with what remained. My tiny tribute to the legend of Mighty Joe, and an era long gone.