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The ‘way out’ sometimes presents itself in unexpected ways. Here Kent Nelson talks about how the main character in his cliffhanger short story, “The Way Out,” in the Summer issue of The Antioch Review finds one.

Excerpt from “The Way Out,” a short story in the Summer issue of The Antioch Review

By the time Iris started her traverse of the hillside it was 3:30 in the afternoon and snowing hard. She had her rifle slung across her body and was carrying an elk front quarter and the two tenderloins—more than she wanted to—and her pack was lopsided to the left. There was nothing she could do about that now. Warren was a hundred yards ahead, a shape shrouded in white against a whiter background. It had taken them four hours to gut, skin, and quarter the elk, and blood had frozen in her gloves. She’d wrapped her hands in spare socks and kept one and then another tucked under an armpit, keeping one hand free for balance. She still smelled elk musk in her parka and in her camouflage pants.

kent2When I sit down to write a story, I don’t have the story in mind. Occasionally I’ll have a scene or an event to aim toward, but in most instances, I start with characters in a place and I see how these interact, how the details accumulate, how the direction of the story gets established by what the characters do or say. But of the 187 stories I’ve written, “The Way Out” has a unique history. It’s the only story I’ve ever started as an instructional paragraph.

Seven or eight years ago I wrote a hundred words or so about a character carrying elk out of the Bear Creek drainage above Ouray, Colorado. It was a place I knew well, reached by a difficult hike from about 8000 feet to 11,000 feet, and a haven for bear, deer, elk, mountain sheep, and Golden Eagles. The paragraph was intended as a discussion exercise for a class, to demonstrate the kinds of choices writers make, like, in this case, should the protagonist be a man or a woman? What should the weather be? What time of day should it be at the beginning of the story? Who should have shot the elk? How far apart should the two characters be from each other (which relates to what they can or can’t say to each other, what they see, and how they think). What should the point of view be for the story? And, what could happen next?

Of course, when I write a story, I don’t really think of these considerations. I simply put the people where they are, extrapolate, add details, start over, add more details, start over again, etc. I often type over page one ten times (on a typewriter, not a word-processor). In 2012, after using this paragraph again in a fiction class, I decided to see where the continuation of this circumstance might go. I had already decided the protagonist should be a woman, because women are more interesting than men, and in my experience not that many women hunt elk. That added an unusual quality to the circumstances. I put in the small hardships of hunting – dealing with the cold, muscle aches, a heavy load, camping – which lent authenticity to the situation. But I knew the story couldn’t be only about elk hunting and its psychology. That wasn’t sufficient. I had to come up with two personalities, a relationship, and a back story, and an event – something has to happen in a story.

Since in another life I had hunted elk, and since I knew the Bear Creek drainage well, I included a lot of “true” details in the narrative – I’ve experienced the fear of hiking in the dark and in heavy snow down a trail with cliff-face dropoff of several hundred feet right off the side. I knew what it felt like to carry an  elk hindquarter on my back. But I’m not a woman. So I had to invent what a woman might experience, what she might feel and think. Mixing invention with experience is exciting, but also difficult because what’s “true” can overwhelm what’s invented.

Who knows whether a story succeeds? I write as well as I can, send the story out, get it back, revise it a while later, send it out again, and wait for the mail. I thank Robert Fogarty for taking this one the first time I’d sent it out, but I still wonder if it’s any good.

Kent Nelson has published four novels and five story collections. He lives in Ouray, Colorado. http://www.kentsnelson.com/.

© 2013 The Antioch Review