Sometimes it’s good to go back to the classics, and today I bring you The Californian’s Tale by Mark Twain.
It’s the story of a dilettante prospector towards the end of the California Gold Rush. He’s not doing any serious prospecting; it’s just an excuse to get the narrator wandering through the setting. It’s a landscape of abandoned homes and deserted dreams. Only the narrator stumbles upon one well-maintained home in the midst of this ‘lonesome land’.
With that mystery planted in our minds, the narrator investigates, finding a middle-aged man who’s waiting for his new young wife to come back from visiting her family.
“She’s been gone two weeks today,” the homesteader tells our storyteller, who — intrigued by the homesteader’s extravagant praise of his wife — asks when she’s expected home. “This is Wednesday. She’ll be back Saturday, in the evening – about nine o’clock, likely.”
The story is full of these kinds of details, which make it seem so much more ‘real’ than it would be without them. She’s not just away, she’s away ‘visiting her folks’ who live ‘forty or fifty miles away’. She’s been gone “two weeks today” and is expected on Saturday “about nine o’clock”. They all tell of a man thinking about his wife, missing her, paying attention the way we do when we’re waiting for someone to come home.
Of course, nothing is exactly as it seems.
I’ve read enough stories like this that I spotted the twist coming, but really beautiful writing (and thinking) makes up for the fact that there are no truly original plots available.
And this is beautiful writing, with that unmistakable Twain voice. Try reading it out loud. Even with my Scottish accent I found myself being forced in to antiquated, Southern rhythms.
Oh, to find such a natural voice in our own writing!
So, how do we do that? I think it’s all down to confidence: confidence that you’re writing for one person, for your ideal reader, not for some editor or judging committee, for ‘everyone’, or for posterity.
Write to please one person (even if that person is yourself) and we’re likely to come up with such a strong, confident voice in our stories.
Read The Californian’s Tale online