"The Doll in the Attic" by Ian Creasey — story background

"Did you get the doll down from the attic, dear?"

"What doll?" asked Nina, buttering herself a slice of bread.

"The one I mentioned the other day — and last week," said Nina's grandmother.  She seasoned the last of her salmon from one of the three salt cellars on the table.

"Oh yes."  Nina hadn't forgotten, but she'd hoped her grandmother had.  "Why do you want it?"

In the late 1990s I attended evening classes in creative writing at Leeds University.  I didn't learn very much from these classes, but one thing I did learn was that I disliked "exercises" — assignments to write something derived from a title, a picture, a few words, an object, or some other prompt.  I suppose the exercises were intended to stimulate productivity in people who either lacked ideas, or were too lazy to write unless given homework.  Since I wasn't short of ideas or application, I felt that the exercises simply distracted me from the writing I really wanted to do.

But very occasionally, an assignment overcame my inherent lack of enthusiasm.  This particular story was sparked by a suggestion that we write something based on a title of the form "Invisible..." — e.g. "Invisible Universities", "Invisible Beaches", "Invisible Bridges", "Invisible Attics".  I was immediately intrigued by the idea of an invisible attic.  How could an attic be invisible?  Clearly it was a matter of perception.  There would be two characters, one who believed in the attic and one who didn't.  This distinction suggested conflict, and hence a story.

At that time I was focusing on characterisation, since I believed my apprentice writing to be weaker in characterisation than in plotting, description, and so forth.  This embryonic idea felt like a good opportunity to work on my characterisation skills, since the whole story depended on the difference between the two characters and their attitudes.  I decided to write about a woman who lived with her grandmother, an obsessive hoarder.  The story's title changed to reflect the hoarded item — an old doll — that represented the conflict between them.

I'd already learned the futility of writing any remotely challenging SF or Fantasy for these evening classes.  Neither the tutor nor the other pupils were genre readers, and SF/F content usually baffled them.  Consequently, "The Doll in the Attic" became a conventional literary short story, with just a slight supernatural twist.  It was sufficiently safe that my classmates and tutor could understand it.

However, this tameness counted against the story when I tried to sell it.  It didn't have enough speculative content for the genre markets, but it had too much for the mainstream markets.  The story therefore accumulated numerous rejections before I eventually placed it with a webzine, The Palace of Reason.

One advantage of webzines is that the time from acceptance to publication can be very short — in this case, just over a week.  The magazine's contents page comprised links to the stories, together with a short blurb about each piece.  When they published "The Doll in the Attic", they decided to blurb it by giving away the ending.

Blurbing short stories is not at all easy, as I know from the times when I've been asked to compose my own introductory blurbs.  I usually prefer to say as little as possible about what happens in the story, because much of the art of writing lies in the careful, controlled revelation of character and situation.  Certainly I would never blurb a story by mentioning the ending, even indirectly.  After all, if I wanted the reader to know the ending beforehand, I wouldn't have put it at the end — I would have put it at the beginning.

Page last updated: 22 May 2015