Today is the birthday of Scottish writer Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), better known by the pen name Saki. Munro was born in British Burma, where his father was an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police. Munro later served in the Burma police force himself, but he was forced to resign after he contracted malaria. Near the end of his life, Munro joined the British Army and served in World War I. He was killed in 1916, shot by a German sniper in France during the Battle of the Ancre.
Munro’s writing career began as a journalist in England, but he is best known for his carefully crafted short stories. The stories often satirized social conventions and frequently featured surprise endings. Saki’s stories are often compared to the those of American writer O’Henry (1862-1910), which also feature endings with a surprising twist (1).
One particularly brilliant story by Saki is called “The Open Window.” The story features a character named Framton Nuttel, who is visiting the country in hopes of finding relief for his nervous condition. Nuttel, with letters of introduction from his sister in hand, visits the home of Mrs. Sappleton. While waiting for Mrs. Sappleton to come down, Nuttel talks with Sappleton’s niece, a precocious fifteen-year old named Vera. In the room where the two characters are sitting, a French window is kept open, despite the fact that it’s October. Vera explains to Nuttel that the door is left open because Mrs. Sappleton is under the delusion that her husband and her brothers will return from hunting, despite the fact that the three men died three years ago, sinking into “a treacherous piece of bog.”
When Mrs. Sappleton arrives in the room and begins talking about the imminent return of her husband and brothers, Nuttel listens politely, but based on Vera’s explanation, he perceives his hostess as deranged.
When Mrs. Sappleton announces the return of the hunters, Nuttel turns and sees three men approaching the French doors accompanied by their hunting dog. Thinking he is seeing ghosts, Nuttel leaps up, fleeing the house in horror. At this point in the story, the reader realizes that Vera made up the story of the hunting tragedy simply to entertain herself. Next, instead of explaining the trick she played on Nuttel to her aunt, she spins another tale to explain Nuttel’s odd behavior, saying that Nuttel was spooked by the dog:
He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him.
The final line sums up Vera’s propensity for flash fiction: “Romance at short notice was her speciality” (2).
The meaning of the word “romance” in the context in which Saki uses it does not mean romantic love. Instead, in this context, romance relates to the long tradition of Medieval Romances, imaginative and extravagant stories of the adventures of heroic characters. Therefore, if he were writing today, Saki probably would have written: “Imagination at short notice was her speciality.”
Today’s Challenge: Short Notice, Short Fiction
What is something odd that a character might wear or carry, and why would the character wear or carry it? Practice using your imagination at short notice. Pick a number at random, from 1 to 7. Then write the opening of a short story in which you, the narrator, give the backstory of why the character wears or carries the odd item. Give the character a name, and also establish the setting of your story.
- A character who wears a Santa hat in May
- A character who wears a toga in January
- A character who wears earmuffs in July
- A character who always carries a rubber chicken
- A character who always carries a cheese grater
- A character who carries a guitar with no strings
- A character who carries an open umbrella when there is no chance or sign of rain
(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Quotation of the Day: Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to common belief, is more powerful in the mature than in the young. –W. Somerset Maugham