Write about what you know

Pick of the day: Alan Paton (1903-1988) -  Ha’penny (from his collection Debbie Go Home)

A friend asked me the other day if I would be including a story I had written in the anthology of Dorset shorts we are planning to put together as part of the Dorset Writers’ Prize.  The answer is “No.”  The competition is not a self-publishing or vanity publishing exercise for me.

With Little Red Writers we want to find and showcase a selection of the best unpublished (so far) stories by writers with a local connection, and I have no wish to diminish the selection process by putting forward something I might have written myself.

For Jo and I, the challenge is to encourage local writers to participate and then publish a book of which all involved can be pleased

Every story submitted will be read and assessed by at least two judges / readers independently.  We hope that having readers of differing tastes will help us choose stories of different styles and appeal as we select our first long list of candidates for inclusion in the final book.

As the for the blog - I hope the stories we cite here will highlight some aspects of short story writing from which we might all learn something. They might also give some indication of the varied style of stories I - with all my subjectivities - would love to have sent in.

Ha’penny, by South African anti-apartheid campaigner Alan Paton (best known for his novel Cry, The Beloved Country) seems a simple tale. He has not filled it with poetic description or allegory. It simply tells a tale of a young black boy (Ha’penny) confined to a reformatory in South Africa, as told by the principal in charge.

Paton spent thirteen years as principal of a large reformatory in Johannesburg, and his knowledge of the subject clearly draws on the rule of “write about what you know.”

He tells his story with calm authority, using simple and direct language, almost as if he is giving a verbal report, telling of his own position, how Ha’penny came to his notice and what then occurred. There is no twist in the tail - just an ending

It is perhaps because of the simplicity of Paton’s telling, his control, that his use of the word “prodigal”, twice in the final few paragraphs, seems so striking, and reveals some of the unspoken depths of emotion within the story. It also shows that although Paton’s words are simple, they are well chosen.

“I wish I had done something sooner, more wise, more prodigal.”

“And I was left too, with the resolve to be more prodigal in the task that the State, though not in so many words, had enjoined upon me.”

Ha’penny: a small brown coin of little value.

Prodigal: recklessly wasteful or extravagant. Lavish.

PS... I was also pleased (and surprised) to realise while reading Ha'penny that Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated in South Africa.  It had never struck me before that it would be - but it gives today's post an added relevance.