Shadows on the Plain, published in 2005 by Endeavor Books, is my fifth collection of short stories. As with my previous collection Antelope Sky, these stories are set in the contemporary West, for the most part Wyoming, although a couple of the characters travel from there to other places.
Shadows on the Plain consists of fifteen stories that were written between 1995 and the year of publication of the book (many of the stories were previously published). I have been writing short stories for over thirty years, and although they do not earn much recognition and they tend to fade from view in a short time, I continue to strive to meet the challenges of writing short fiction.
There is a great variety of length and form in short story writing, so in addition to not writing the same story line twice, I try not to use the same narrative structure from one story to the next. In contrast with writing fiction for a mass-market audience (as I do with traditional westerns), a writer may write a short story that does not have a definite, problem-solving resolution. The end of a short story may seem more open-ended, lifelike, with the aesthetic purpose of expressing the idea that some problems in life do not have solutions or that some people are willing not to deal with problems in a direct, decisive way. A reader can hang in there for ten or twenty pages and be satisfied with the insight implied by such a treatment. The same reader might not be as satisfied with a three-hundred-page novel that does the same thing. Every story has an end, though, and if the author is writing with a sense of purpose and form, the ending will be designed so that it supports the feeling or idea about life that the author wished to deal with in this sortie.
Although I think of stories in terms of form (sequence, tangible vs. intangible conflict, open vs. closed ending), I have found it practical to classify my own stories into four categories according to subject matter. One kind of short story I write is the one with an Old West setting—sort of like a traditional western novel in miniature. For the most part, these stories follow the idea that a genre western should have a clear conflict and a definite ending. They don’t all have to end with gunfights or triumphs of good will over bad, but they can’t end with wisps of fog or smoke. My first collection of short stories, One Foot in the Stirrup, consists of somewhat conventional stories that have the same audience as paperback westerns do. In this category, as in the others to some extent, the subject matter and the narrative form go together.
A second kind of story I write is almost a polar opposite of the western story. I sometimes think of this category as the smart-ass story, but to put it in more technical terms I would call it the ironic story. These stories are usually in first person, often very short, and often evanescing toward the end as the main character is bedeviled by the predicament he got himself into. My second short story collection, I’ll Tell You What, is a slim little volume of mostly short pieces (three to ten pages), all narrated by characters whom you might listen to over a beer but with whom you would not want to keep close company for very long.
A third kind of story I write draws upon my experiences growing up and working in the farm and ranch country of California in the 1960’s. My perspective on that way of life tends to be more bittersweet than nostalgic. The third collection of short fiction that I brought out, Seasons in the Fields, is about people who struggle to make a living and manage their lives. In my experience, that is the nature of working at seasonal labor. As for structure, these stories often do not follow a straight-line chronological narrative, and they tend to have meditative or thought-provoking endings rather than happy ones.
A fourth kind of story I write is the one set in the modern or contemporary West. These stories, like the ones set in California, are serious, literary pieces that range in length from ten to thirty pages and seek their own form in terms of structure and resolution. My fourth collection of short stories, Antelope Sky, contains stories that deal with modern-day problems and pose contemporary ways of looking at life.
Shadows on the Plain continues in the style and subject matter of Antelope Sky, in that the stories depict the kinds of characters and problems that one would meet in everyday life in the contemporary West. The characters are generally outdoors-y, and the landscape or environment influences how they live. Their problems are either interpersonal or occasioned by the character having to adapt to his place in the world. As I sometimes put it, a character in a traditional story cannot end by thinking that he’ll just deal with those cattle rustlers some other day. He needs to rise to action and bring the bad guys to justice, not just think about it. In a contemporary story, or in a story with a contemporary treatment, the character indeed may end by forming an insight, as in “Cowboy Heart,” or by settling for an un-articulated insight, as in “Hunting Along the Wall” (these are good stories for contrast with the traditional story, as these two both have characters who go out on horseback into an evocative landscape). A contemporary treatment may also lend itself to having characters express unconventional or anti-mainstream sentiments, another kind of risk that an author can take in fiction that is not directed at a mass-market audience in a conservative genre. In this collection, then, the reader meets characters such as the narrator in “Memoirs of the Old Scout,” who shoots gophers and jackrabbits as part of his effort to deal with a strung-out love affair, or the narrator of “Drunk on Christmas Day,” who has good reasons for disliking Christmas and the people who make scenes on holidays, even as he recognizes that he himself got drunk on the Christmas Day in the story.
This kind of fiction may also wander into the ironic mode, as discussed above. If I had written “Nice Boots” earlier in life, it would have ended up in I’ll Tell You What, but it was short so I had room for it here, and a little bit of vulgarity wasn’t going to get it kicked out of the collection. The story entitled “On the Outskirts” is an interesting foray on its own, again about a character who does not endorse the values of mainstream America. This selection consists of five parts, each one about a page in original manuscript; I call them one-page novels (I term I heard elsewhere), and the concept might be interesting to ponder as one reads these inter-related vignettes about a character who, like others in the collection, rides a horse. For the reader who enjoys irony in larger doses, I will mention “Memoirs of the Old Scout” once again.
These are just a few of the stories in the book . Some are pensive and somber, like the closing story, “Dusk on the Rangeland”; some are skeptical and realistic, such as “County Plates” and “Campers”; and some are heartfelt and hopeful, such as “Chokecherries Are Free.” Each one, I hope, adds something to the variety while sustaining the overall thematic unity or world view of the collection. Not every story I wrote since my last collection went into this one, and the ones I did include did not go in according to the order in which they were written or published. I tried to arrange the stories so that they would read like a book even as they functioned as autonomous reading experiences. The reader may decide whether I succeeded, just as the reader may ponder the kinds of shadows that appear in the lives of plain people who live in the plains country.
Shadows on the Plain is available at Amazon.