Will Ludwigsen is a talented speculative fiction writer who has placed some terrific stories in magazines such as Weird Tales, Cemetery Dance, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Asimov’s Science Fiction as well as the Interfictions 2 anthology. For those unfamiliar with his work, Will’s fiction is bright, smart, talented, and witty with just a dash of darkness and a pinch of deviousness to spice up the mix. However, he’s also known for coming up with clever writing projects such as his new series, Postcard Stories.
I can hear the collective consciousness of the internet calling out across the near endless expanse of digital domains, asking, “What the heck IS a postcard story?”
Excellent question! In a nutshell, Will’s postcard stories are lovely little nuggets of fiction served up in bite-sizes pieces of prose that are based on images that in some way inspire each story’s creation. Plus, they only take about five minutes to read. However, these lovely little tidbits come with a catch. Will gives himself only an hour to write each piece. The most impressive thing about the Postcard Stories series is that there really isn’t a dud in the bunch. They’re all well-written, engaging pieces that give you just enough flavor to satisfy a quick fiction craving.
Underwords was lucky enough to get Will to sit down with us and answer a few questions about his Postcard Stories, and he even shares one of his favorite pieces with us (see below).
How did you come up with the idea of the Postcard Story? What inspired it?
I’ve found that it’s hard for me to write anything without some kind of stimulus to draw me past the initial surge of terror at the beginning of a project. If I’m lucky, that stimulus is a whole plot created in my mind or a wonderful first line that needs justification or a strange person who needs something cool to do.
Usually, I’m not that lucky, but I’ve found that a photograph provides just the tiniest nudge of structure, limitation, and focus that I need. Instead of the ephemeral “write a brilliant story,” the goal is now, “explain what the hell is going on in this picture in the weirdest possible way.” And that’s far more manageable.
I discovered this after years of writing macabre little stories for my friends in blank greeting cards with benign-seeming images. I really loved doing them — partly as a particularly Will-like gift, partly as a way of showing off — and when I did one recently for Matt and Deena Warner’s Hallowe’en card, I wondered if I could do them more frequently.
The idea of the time limit came because that’s another limitation to help me focus. Also, it prevents me from spending too much time on something, picking and picking at it forever.
I guess the model is something like a weekly television show: hammer it out as quickly as you can and hope that most of them are pretty good.
Where do you find the photos for each piece? How do you decide which one to use?
The images all have to be public domain, of course, so I don’t have to pay for them. So I do searches online for “free public domain images” or “free artwork” to find ones I can use.
Illustrations from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are coming into the public domain now, and I’m in love with a woman named Elizabeth Shippen Green who used to illustrate children’s books. I’m not sure how innocently she drew her pictures, but they lend so, so well to all sorts of strange interpretations. Probably something to do with the wholesome-looking children in them.
I’ve collected a folder of the images I find interesting and when it’s time for a One Hour Story, I browse through it and see if there’s one that inspires me. I used to close my eyes and randomly pick, but that didn’t turn out quite as well.
And, hey, I’m always open for suggestions!
You’ve given yourself other writing related challenges and projects like the ExerZone. What is it about these projects that inspire you as a writer?
I’m motivated way more than I should be by showing off. I love the “Good lord, how did you do that?” reaction. Failing that, I’ll settle for the “Good lord, WHY did you do that?” reaction. Either way, I feel this strong neurotic and codependent need to amaze people — either by quality, quantity, or sheer folly. I’m not that picky.
Plus I have the hardest time sitting down to write a story or a chapter or a review, but when I throw down a gauntlet for myself publicly, I feel compelled to rise to the challenge.
Have you ever started a Postcard Story and found yourself stuck at some point, unable to continue? How did you get the story moving again and finished within an hour?
One of the nice (and intentional) side effects of the Postcard Stories is that there are no excuses. If I get stuck, I’d damn well better think of a way to get unstuck or I’m going to look like even more of an idiot than usual. One of my inspirational sayings to myself is, “A professional doesn’t have the luxury of giving up.”
The most common way I get unstuck is by backing up a few paragraphs out of the dead end and then starting in a different direction. Another way is to refocus on what someone is trying to DO and how the universe is trying to STOP them.
Most often, getting “stuck” is a function of there not being a point, an action driving the piece.
It’s actually revolutionized the way I think of writing stories. The picture is not enough. The character is not enough. The first line is not enough. I’ve trained myself to think of that important second element, a tangible point of contact between want and action.
You’ve written nearly two dozen of these stories. Do you have a favorite among them? What is it about this story that you enjoy most?
But my favorite, the one that seemed to come out of nowhere, was the second one I wrote. (And God, I hope that doesn’t mean it’s all be downhill since!)
Here it is. And thanks for having me on Underwords!
Postcard Story #2 (February 4, 2011):
In Which a Fishing Clown Lands His Catch
Illustration by Elizabeth Shippen Green
If it wasn’t poachers on ol’ Whit Carlton’s property, it was Mormons. Or Klansmen burning a cross. Or a circle of chained apes escaped from the zoo. You’d damn well think that Whit had himself El Dorado on that hundred acres of his, for all the people he suspected of trying to raid it.
Sheriff Beaumont wasn’t having it this time. He folded his hands behind his head and leaned back in his industrial metal chair. It squeaked as he propped one boot atop the other on his desk and said, calmly, “Now, Whit, just what kind of clown you reckon is on your property?”
“What kind of clown? What the hell does it matter?” Whit’s voice had an entertaining way of leaping into the upper registers when he got excited, which was often. Truth be told, folks in town liked to “poke the bear” every so often, telling Whit they’d seen Communists taking an envelope from his mailbox or Mrs. Carlton stepping out with a Methodist.
“It matters in lots of ways, Whit. There are different tactics required for, say, your garden-variety circus clown versus your court jester or your fool. Different gauges of buckshot, too — a harlequin has tougher hide than a rhino and they get ten times as mad.”
“I didn’t vote for you, Beaumont,” said Whit.
“Nobody did. I was appointed by the mayor.” Sheriff Beaumont sighed. “What did you say this clown was doing?”
“He was fishing out in the crick, southeast corner of the property just where the cypress swamp starts up.”
“For the sake of Jesus, yes, fishing.”
The hook passes, the hook passes, the hook passes again. It lingers near the mouth, tantalizingly close.
“What kind of bait was he using?” Beaumont really wanted to know; it was spring, and the shiners weren’t as easy for the bass to see in all the sunlight. If the clown was using worms, maybe, or–
“I didn’t stop to talk to him. I only saw him. He was perched in a tree, like, dropping his line into the water, casual like he owned the place.”
“He catch anything?”
Whit Carlton’s face turned as red as a match head, and Sheriff Beaumont figured he ought not to light it.
“Now, trespassin’s a crime, that’s a fact — whether you’re a clown or not. You see any evidence that he was fixin’ to stay overnight? A hobo’s bag, maybe, or some blankets or whatnot?”
“I saw him and I came straight to you, Sheriff.”
You ran, thought Sheriff Beaumont. Which wasn’t all that odd, given how you don’t much expect to see one in the woods like that.
It dances, the hook, just on the edge. The wide silvered eyes seem mesmerized by its glint and the mouth slowly opens.
“See, the reason I ask is it’s a hot day and the cruiser’s been acting up and we’ve only got one jail cell with the high school football game coming up. Now, if he’s still there and we catch him, he’s gonna take up room we’d usually use to get a drunk off the roads. You want that on your conscience, Whit, a drunk out running over cheerleaders just to put your clown away?”
“The law’s the law!” cried Whit.
“I don’t deny it, no sir. I’m only asking you to think of the worst thing that can happen with a clown in your back forty. The worst thing, the absolute worst, and compare it to Hap McMahon’s pretty little Opal getting run down. Just as a for instance, mind you.”
Whit thought that over, something he showed by clenching first one side of his mouth and then the other. “He could steal fish,” he finally said.
“They your fish?” asked the sheriff. “I mean, when you think about it, they’re really God’s fish, aren’t they? And if He wants to give a few to that clown in the woods, I don’t know that we ought to stop Him.”
“So I’m to let anybody come on my land all willy-nilly? What’s the point of having it, then? You tell me that.”
“The point of havin’ it, Whit, is that you’re a bigger man for letting folks use it from time to time. When was the last time you was fishing for food on someone’s farm dressed as a clown? Never, that’s when. Cut the man a break. Be a Christian, will you?”
Whit tried to say something and then stopped. He tried to say something else and stopped again. Finally, he stormed from the police station, off to scream at the old men playing checkers or one of the ladies at the bank.
That’s a good day’s police work, thought Sheriff Beaumont, tipping his hat over his eyes.
The hook catches, slips, catches for good on her blued lips. She rises from the water on the end of her puppet string, her black hair washing back across her pale and wrinkled scalp, and he clutches her cold body close. He squeezes, even, and brown creek water oozes from the knife wounds. She’s found, found again. Found. She’s his again.