A Short Fiction Example
"Place as Character"
Sometimes the setting or "place" of a story is so essential to the plot that it becomes a key character. Everything that goes forward from the beginning must fit into that setting. The setting creates mood, affects attitude, provides drama and permits, even causes, the growth of the character toward change. Change is the ultimate goal of any short story. This short story is an example of the power of "place as character."
By Kathy Coogan
Summer was back after seventeen days of rumbling downpours. Raindrops clung to the tips of pine boughs, shimmering with all their might, knowing that to fall was to dry up and die. The lake ebbed and flowed like an inland sea, and overflowed its banks with the slightest breeze. The giant stones that were usually high and dry, where generations of fisher-kids had perched, were now wet and slick.
Suzanne sat on the stone on which she had etched her name during the summers she was eleven, twelve and thirteen. It had taken her those three years of determined off-and-on scratching into the igneous rock to inscribe the seven letters. She had often wished for a shorter name but had never been willing to call herself Suzie.
Settled comfortably onto the smooth concave shelf, she watched the flutter-bugs which skittered on the surface of the lake. Her rod lay at her side but the sunshine made her lazy and she knew that the local fish would be too sated by the rain-delayed insect buffet to be interested in her bait.
She felt better sitting in the sunshine. She hadn’t minded the rainy days of isolation but seventeen in a row had depleted her disposition’s resources. Every night she had gone to bed looking toward the lake through the rain-sheeted windows, listening to the weatherman on her old clock radio. The poor guy had used up all the metaphors and similes that he had learned in meteorology school and had sunk to, “Tomorrow’s forecast: more of the same.”
The rain had finally stopped late last night (or early this morning depending on your circadian rhythm) not gradually but like God had put a plug in the jug. The sudden silence had startled her awake and as she sat up and listened she began to hear the birds and insects who may have also just awakened.
Sitting now with the sun turning the gray stones to silver, she was glad that she had come up here to the cabin, had stuck it out though the rain. She had run here, leaving blueprints curling on her desk and an away-message on her computer. Jake, her partner in Antiquity Restorations, had her office key and password. He would keep her clients happy.
She had loaded her duffel with necessities long remembered from her Girl Scout handbook: candles, matches, flashlight, sleeping bag. She had even thrown in a few cans of pork ‘n beans, a childhood favorite, though the nearby town of Crenshaw had a country store. The reversion to cabin-time and cabin-thought restored some emotional balance. It had been a long time.
Though it was her favorite place, Suzanne had never brought Robert back to the cabin after the first time. She had realized too late that her poetic license in describing it had set Robert’s expectations too high. While she loved the quirky wood stove, Robert had jumped every time the wood sap popped and had been humiliated by his anxiety.
Here was a surgeon who faced blood and body fluids every day but was terrorized by what lurked below the smelly outhouse’s two-seater. For the first time since they became a couple, they passed the night without lovemaking, though she had assured him that the sounds they heard were just the latest generation of mice who lived in the walls and had never hurt a soul.
The cabin became a symbol of their differences. It grew to be a weapon used against her. At home in their condo, Robert’s fear was forgotten, ramped up instead to hostility. “If you don’t like it,” (whatever “it” might be) “go live in your precious cabin,” he would sneer. To their upwardly mobile friends, he would say, “Suzanne’s not into stainless and granite. She’s a cabin-esque kind o’gal. Right Suze?”
The twang and the smirk would make her heart hurt with the knowledge that she truly was “cabin-esque” and that to the man she had chosen to love, there was wrong in that. The new nickname, “Suze,” bestowed by a man who had always insisted on “Robert” was a coded insult. His caricature of her had been developed and was enough to give him permission to sample more modern kind o’ gals.
Fleeing to the cabin after the decree of separation restored Suzanne to herself, permitted her to step out of Robert’s shadow and back into her own light. Enduring the rain and the solitude strengthened her. Sitting comfortably cross-legged on the giant stone settee, Suzanne lifted the flap of her shirt pocket and removed the envelope that contained the letter from her lawyer that said that she was no longer married. She had read it dozens of times, using it as a bookmark or a coaster for her mug, but always keeping it nearby. It bore scars from handling that symbolized her own.
As she had walked around the lake road with the rain cascading off her slicker hood, she had imagined scenarios for her return to her real world when she could finally say with aplomb that she was divorced. “I am divorced,” she would say, chin up, voice strong, when asked if she was married. People always asked that of women her age and she supposed she should be happy that she didn’t have to say, “I am a widow,” though there had been hundreds of times that she had wished Robert dead.
She had been resentful of the impartiality of the legal system regarding divorce. No fault. No fault? As if Robert’s adultery didn’t taint him. As if his lies and humiliations didn’t damage her. The court ended their marriage as if it were some stupid, shallow fraternal relationship, some Alpha Something Omega, from which she had been blackballed. Her desire for Robert to feel some pain, either emotional or monetary, had been seen as not playing by the rules. “This is a no fault divorce state, Mrs. McMillan,” she was reminded, as if she were being a bad sport.
But now with the tree-frogs making a drum-roll, Suzanne tore the envelope’s contents in half and then into ragged pieces. She imagined the typed words being separated, losing their sentence structure and their meaning; becoming no more than jumbled confetti in her fist. She squeezed the scraps into a damp ball and marveled how small it was. She stuffed it into the smelly, red, battered box which held her rusty and mildewed fishing gear. It resembled the spongy wads of squished white bread that she and her lake buddies had once used to fool the fish into coming to the surface.
She felt the sun warm her shoulders through the flannel shirt. She unbuttoned and removed it, glad that she had slipped into her ratty faded Speedo bathing suit before dressing in her cabin clothes. Maybe the fish are biting after all, she thought. She baited her hook cleanly with one of the night-crawlers which just hours earlier had been worming upward through the soft wet soil. Her fingers worked efficiently, muscle-memory rendering this an easy task. She flicked her wrist in the familiar gesture required to sail her line into the lake.
She looked forward to cleaning her catch and only for a second did she imagine that it was Robert that she was gutting. She’d eat her dinner: pan-fried fish and canned baked beans, on the storm-sodden screened porch, the perfect setting for an unmarried cabinesque kind o’gal.
Another example of Kathy's Short Fiction
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