Where do stories come from? Joan Aiken explains…

Argosy webpage

Joan Aiken studied her craft while working for the short story magazine Argosy in the 1950’s, and always said it was the best training she could have had. As well as reading hundreds of submissions, interviewing and gleaning advice from the top authors of the day, such as Paul Gallico or H.E.Bates, and submitting her own stories to fierce editorial scrutiny, she was tasked with filling odd corners of pages, searching out entertaining news items, and writing a humorous Log Book to introduce the magazine each month.

With the petrol supply problems and queues in the UK at the moment, this one is rather timely:

Argosy jingles

While many of Joan Aiken’s Argosy stories were later included in her own supernatural or fantasy collections, she was so prolific that many had fallen out of print until fellow fantasy enthusiasts, Gavin Grant and his writer partner Kelly Link of the independent American publishers, Small Beer Press, offered to bring out a collection of these early works,  even including some previously unpublished finds, among which are some of her wildest and most memorable stories.

Also in this collection is a short introduction Joan Aiken wrote for the title story, full of her own generous and hard earned writing wisdom, especially useful advice for other writers just starting out perhaps?

Here it is:

“Writing short stories has always been my favourite occupation ever since I was small, when I used to tell stories to my younger brother on walks we took through the Sussex woods and fields. At first I told him stories out of books we had in the house and then, running low on these, I began to invent, using the standard ingredients, witches, dragons, castles.

  Then doors began to open in my mind, I realised that the stories could be enriched and improved by mixing in everyday situations, people catching trains, mending punctures in bicycle tyres, winning raffles, getting medicine from the doctor. Then I began mixing in dreams. I have always had wonderful dreams – not as good as those of my father Conrad Aiken, who was the best dreamer I ever met, but very striking and full of mystery and excitement.

   The first story I ever finished, written at age 6 or 7 was taken straight from a dream. It was called Her Husband was a Demon. And one of my full-length books, Midnight is a Place was triggered off by a formidable dream about a carpet factory. Most of my short stories have some connection with a dream. When I wake I jot down the important element of the dream in a small notebook. Then weeks, months, even years may go by before I use it, but in the end a connection will be made with something that is happening now, and that sets off a story. It is rather like mixing flour and yeast and warm water. All three ingredients, on their own, will stay unchanged, but put them together and fermentation begins.

    A short story is not planned, in the way that a full-length novel is planned, episode by episode, with the end in sight; a short story is given, straight out of nowhere: suddenly two elements combine and the whole pattern is there, in the same way as, I imagine, painters get a vision of their pictures, before work starts. A short story, to me, always has a mysterious component, something that appears inexplicably from nowhere. Inexplicably, but inevitably; for if you check back through the pattern of the story you can see that the groundwork has already been laid for it. 

   The story of The Monkey’s Wedding for example, was set in motion by a dream about an acerbic old lady hunting about her house for lost things and buried memories, combined with a news story about a valuable painting found abandoned in a barn; only after I had begun the story did I realise that the last ingredient was going to be a grandson she didn’t even know she had lost.”

As a taster you can read one of the stories in a post from Tor.com here – this one is called Reading in Bed and is perhaps a warning to choose your late night reading matter carefully for fear of falling prey to nightmares – or alternatively, as a way of providing useful story material –  as Joan Aiken also said when she recommended eating cheese before bed in order to encourage fertile and fantastic dreams…

Monkey's Wedding 3

Find the collection at Small Beer Press

More Than You Bargained For? My favourite Joan Aiken story.

MTYBF cOVER

The perfect story for a hot dusty Summer day, this is one with magical images of escaping into a dream garden which perfectly suits the strange state of lockdown in which we have been living.

Joan Aiken said that ‘favourite stories are like places you can re-visit,’ going back to somewhere you have known since childhood. This one has a special charm for me, because it always magically returns to that same remembered place, carrying its heroine and us, out of our own constricting four walls and back to the most beautiful garden imaginable.

More Than you Bargained For was the title story of only the second book she published, a collection of stories written, as she says in a time of great uncertainty, but in a tremendous burst of creativity. Replying to a letter from a reader, Joan Aiken mentions her father Conrad Aiken’s short stories, and describes the background to their mutual creative process, and how that very need for escape can be the spur to a writer’s inspiration:

MTYBF 1 WEEK

The story starts in a hot dusty city,  in the 1950’s London which she knew well, in the area around Bloomsbury and the British Museum, (near the offices of her new publisher in Bedford Square!) where a mother and daughter (with whom I always identified…) lived, as in the best fairy tales, poor, but not unhappy with their lot.

Here is the first page of her original copy:

MTYBF page 1

This story has all the perfect ingredients, lovely details of place and mood, and appreciation of all the small joys of life – cats, music, a fig tree, and that lovely cool blue bowl of radishes. We know that something good will come to Ermine and her mother, because they treasure the right things in their life. When misfortune strikes, they are rescued in best fairy tale tradition, because of their care for others, and because they are open in their imaginations to the particular magic of the everyday.

Ermine does someone a favour and in return is given a record of a piece of music by a certain Mr.Handel, which turns out to be much more than she bargained for. As in other Joan Aiken stories it is music that opens a door to another world:

MTYBF garden

Monet lilies

In a publisher’s brief for an introduction to this story collection, Joan wrote that she was trying to convey:

‘What happens in the everyday world if you go round the wrong corner,

open an unfamiliar door, get off your bus at a different stop’

so that in her stories, these everyday events sometimes do turn out to be

More Than You Bargained For.

MTYBF JA BLURB

Joan Aiken’s own magic is in imagining how quite wonderful things could happen if you are on the look out for the odd and unexpected, and as a short story writer, you will certainly recognise these moments as your own good fortune.

I’m not going to tell you how the story goes on, or how it ends, it has such charm I think everyone should discover it for themselves, and I hope it carries you all away to a special magical place of your own.

A review in the Times Literary Supplement when the book first came out said:

MTYBF T.L.S 2 png

– an inspired and equally cooling image, coming directly from my hot, dusty, London day, to wherever you may be.

Have a lovely cooling dream.

*       *       *      *       *       *

The story can be found in The Gift Giving from Virago Modern Classics

along with many more favourite stories

also available as an EBook so you needn’t wait too long…

Gift Giving

Read more about it on the Joan Aiken website

Cover illustration at the top from the US edition by long time friend and collaborator

Pat Marriott

Water-lilies from Monet’s Garden

An Easter Egg story from Joan Aiken & Jan Pienkowski – the origin of the egg hunt?

House Egg story

Joan Aiken’s Necklace of Raindrops stories famously illustrated by Jan Pienkowski have been bedtime reading favourites for years. In this story – A Bed for the Night – four travelling musicians with wonderfully tongue in cheek names are wandering in search of a home:

Bed for the Night

In classic fable format, the friends ask various animals and people they meet if they can offer them a bed for the night, but everyone turns them down…

Finally they meet an old lady, who has a house like Baba Yaga’s – standing on its one chicken leg – which has just laid an egg!

But this time the story ends happily, although not in the way we expect – the brothers hunt for the egg and bring it back, but by the time they do it has cracked – it’s hatching, into another one legged house, and so the old lady rather crossly gives it to them – because now she can’t boil it for her supper…

So now they have a little chicken-leg house of their own!

Bed for the Night Pic

>>>>O<<<<

Read more about this beautifully illustrated collection A Necklace of Raindrops

Or find the audio version read by Joan Aiken’s daughter

Lizza Aiken