Pirates Alley Assault

 

            Edgar and Betty Sheehan, slipped out of their French Quarter hotel, just as the rain stopped. They found themselves nearly alone in Pirates Alley as few others had ventured out after the downpour. Only a street vendor pushing a cart, dressed in a wife-beater and dirty jeans occupied the alley. Edgar eyed him nervously, wincing at the man’s scarred chin, noticeably menacing even from a distance. He grabbed Betty’s arm, guiding her away from the brute, but it was too late. 

            “Hey people, I got t-shirts. Only $20.00 and it’s for a good cause. Proceeds go to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.”

            Betty barged forward. She was a large, round woman, compared to her husband, but she appeared inconsequential next to the street vendor. She inspected the merchandise and found it inferior. “We don’t want a two dollar tee shirt for twenty dollars.”

            The brute sneered, “I hate you tourist types, too cheap to help people in need. You’ll drop a couple hundred at Arnaud’s but you won’t spend a lousy twenty to help the starving people that built this town.”

            The brute took a step in close to Betty, towering over her. A large blue vein pulsed across his forehead.

            Edgar stepped forward, reaching for a shirt. His hand trembled as he let it unfold before him. “Nice material. He’s right honey. This shirt will make a great souvenir.”

            The street vendor smirked and backed off. “You’ll need two,” he said. “Looks like a medium and an extra-large.” He rumbled through his pile of shirts, looking for the correct sizes.

             Irritated, Betty grabbed Edgar’s arm as he reached for his wallet. She screeched at the street vendor, “We gave a generous donation at the Cathedral. We’re not chucking our money away on a lousy $2.00 tee-shirt. You should be ashamed of yourself, mister. Jesus don’t want you scamming people.”

            The street vendor grabbed at Betty’s shirt, twisting it, along with the bra underneath. “Who says I’m scammin anybody. Dhese shirts are for the poor. Whose sayin different?”

            Edgar, shaking even worse now, withdrew a wad of bills from his wallet. “No need for violence, mister. Here well take two, make that three shirts.” He held out three twenties.

            The street vendor released Betty and smiled a big, yellow-toothed grin. “That’s more like it.” He took the bills and handed Edgar three shirts, not bothering with sizes. “Smile folks, God loves a cheerful giver.” Then he pushed away with his cart.

            They stood stock-still, watching him leave. Betty whimpered. They cowered off in the opposite direction. Edgar ditched the shirts, stashing them into the basket of a bicycle that someone left tethered to an iron fence.

            “We should report him to the police,” Betty hissed, clutching the arm of her husband.

            “Let it go,” he said.

Instructor Response

Russ—

You know what it means to miss New Orleans. I lived there for a few years and your scene brought back vivid and pleasant memories. A scene well done, too. You, as usual, were able to incorporate all the goals of the exercise: setting, characterization, conflict, and a plot with a beginning, middle, and end. Other than a comment or two, I thought I’d wax and wane a little about storytelling and writer opportunities using your story as a launch pad. You’re one of the few students I would present these ideas to. (You really have a lot of potential.)

In general, I believe contemporary fiction writers, particularly the literary ones, have lost reasons to present their stories. They don’t seem to write with the purpose, and the innate capacity probably for most, that comes from the writer’s skills in characterization with attention to motivation and credible enlightening reactions.

So as we’re creating and in revision, it can be useful to look for opportunities in the characterization to enhance reader understanding of the character through the character’s enlightenment, or at least change in thinking. And sometimes these opportunities can get across points that stimulate thinking about issues, life, morality, etc. that add to the characterization and reader enjoyment.

You’ve actually partially done what I’m going to point out when Betty chides Edgar about not reporting the threatening scam artist to the police. But I’ll go through the process as an emphasis as to what might be valuable in even furthering a morality issue by being sure Edgar knows of his failure. This will be clear below.

I’ll use your scene (actually acting as a complete story) for the example. It’s not that it should be changed; I’m just using it as an example of how this concept works.

Three characters, all well defined and presented: Edgar and Betty Sheehan, and a street vendor. Is there an opportunity for further characterization? Of course there is, for all. But what might be the most meaningful? The vendor is a bully, and any credible change in him would take a lot of space. Betty is worried about finances and value, and that seems to be a reasonable approach to giving money to a scam artist. She’s also a forceful presence and not subject to easy change or enlightenment. And Edgar wants to get the interaction over. (I love what you’ve done with the conflicts and the reactions.) Other than Edgar’s wanting to get the interaction over without provoking the bully, who is threatening them, is there something else that might be working? How about Edgar having a responsibility not to satisfy the bully’s unjust and really immoral demands of being forced to buy inferior T-shirts for inflated prices? I mean, no one should give in to such a character. And to resist when the scam artist is large, threatening, and obnoxious would almost be heroic. So what if, in Edgar’s wimpy failure to stand up against evil, he somehow is confronted with his “cowardly” deed? There might be an opportunity to explore this in a paragraph or two of conflict where Betty berates Edgar for giving in to evil and not reporting it to the police when he (Edgar) had the opportunity to fight for right in the face of physical and mental threats. Edgar would probably disagree with any responsibility on pragmatic grounds, but the reader would see a deeper reflection of who and what Edgar is. And the reader also takes away, subconsciously at least, a moral from the scene.

Of course you could use the same approach for each of the characters, with different meanings. And you might never use the technique if your pacing doesn’t allow it, or if dealing with issues tangential to the story is inappropriate. It’s just a way to add significance to characterization and deepen impact and interpretation of actions and emotions.

The opportunities are not always present and are difficult to find. But when things work out, it adds that little bit extra to story effect on the reader, and to character development, and it elevates the quality of the writing and the storytelling.

Edgar and Betty Sheehan, slipped out of their French Quarter hotel, just as the rain stopped. They found themselves nearly alone in Pirates Alley as few others had ventured out after the downpour. Only a street vendor pushing a cart, dressed in a wife-beater and dirty jeans occupied the alley. Edgar eyed him nervously, wincing at the man’s scarred chin, noticeably menacing even from a distance. He grabbed Betty’s arm, guiding her away from the brute, but it was too late.

“Hey people, I got t-shirts. Only $20.00 and it’s for a good cause. Proceeds go to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.”

Betty barged forward. She was a large, round woman, compared to her husband, but she appeared inconsequential next to the street vendor. She inspected the merchandise and found it inferior. “We don’t want a two dollar tee shirt for twenty dollars.”

The brute sneered, “I hate you tourist types, too cheap to help people in need. You’ll drop a couple hundred at Arnaud’s but you won’t spend a lousy twenty to help the starving people that built this town.”

The brute took a step in close to Betty, towering over her. A large blue vein pulsed across his forehead.

Edgar stepped forward, reaching for a shirt. His hand trembled as he let it unfold before him. “Nice material. He’s right honey. This shirt will make a great souvenir.”

The street vendor smirked and backed off. “You’ll need two,” he said. “Looks like a medium and an extra-large.” He rumbled through his pile of shirts, looking for the correct sizes.

 Irritated, Betty grabbed Edgar’s arm as he reached for his wallet. She screeched at the street vendor, “We gave a generous donation at the Cathedral. We’re not chucking our money away on a lousy $2.00 tee-shirt. You should be ashamed of yourself, mister. Jesus don’t want you scamming people.”

The street vendor grabbed at Betty’s shirt, twisting it, along with the bra underneath. “Who says I’m scammin anybody. These shirts are for the poor. Whose sayin different?”

Edgar, shaking even worse now, withdrew a wad of bills from his wallet. “No need for violence, mister. Here well take two, make that three shirts.” He held out three twenties.

The street vendor released Betty and smiled a big, yellow-toothed grin. “That’s more like it.” He took the bills and handed Edgar three shirts, not bothering with sizes. “Smile folks, God loves a cheerful giver.” Then he pushed away with his cart.

They stood stock-still, watching him leave. Betty whimpered. They cowered off in the opposite direction. Edgar ditched the shirts, stashing them into the basket of a bicycle that someone left tethered to an iron fence.  Such a great image for me!

“We should report him to the police,” Betty hissed, clutching the arm of her husband.

“Let it go,” he said.

All the best,
Bill Coles

  1. Bill,

    I was in New Orleans for a conference, several years before Katrina. I have to admit to skipping out of a few sessions. My wife loved the food and I loved the jazz. We hope to go back for a purely recreational trip.
    I’ve wanted to thank you for some time for your invaluable assistance. I couldn’t believe my luck when I stumbled upon your site. You’ve articulated so much that I felt intuitively, that when I read your Story in Literary Fiction: A Manual for Writers, I found myself saying repeatedly, “That’s right. “ Your free workshop is better than anything I’ve paid for.
    Lately, I’ve been writing a short story between each of your assignments, so I anticipate finishing the last one, number sixteen, in about 30 days. Do you have any suggestions as to what I should do next to improve my avocation?

    Russ Lydzinski

    • Russ–
      Thanks for the feedback. Much appreciated.
      You’re writing great stories very well. Consider how to get your work read. Traditional commercial press routes are are shrinking. The slicks have really decreased to The New Yorker that is agent based and, in my opinion, rarely publishing stories that are well written. Certainly not enjoyable for me. The literary presses are a black hole. If you got a story accepted by the Kenyon Review for example, the potential readers realistically are less than five hundred. The circulation is less than five thousand, most of those are alumni and never read the journal. Those that do usually skip fiction. Take Tin House. If you published a collection of short stories with Tin House, Rob Spillman told me they are pleased if the sell 3000 copies. What are the chances of a single story being read? Really low. As authors we deserve to be read by those readers who like our work. For me, the Internet has been a blessing. A single story can have more than 200,000 viewers, and about 30% are tracked to verify finishing the story, although the total may be much greater because of limitations of tracking. I see posting stories on the Internet and promoting them as the most useful way to reawaken interest in the short story and reintroduce quality fiction as and enjoyable and legitimate way to present meaningful stories. I suggest you explore the possibilities. It’s not lucrative. But it is, I think, the best way to recognized. I think posting online will become the major source for readers to enjoy quality fiction and I’m working hard to find strategies for authors to be successful using the Internet.
      Always a pleasure hearing from you, and all the best.
      Bill

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