Today is a big day for the Paper Lantern Writers. It’s the launch date of our first short story anthology, Unlocked. The anthology is comprised of eight short stories spanning seven centuries that are connected by a single object—an old wooden chest with a heart shaped lock.
The historical periods range from 1225 with Anne Begg’s “The Dragon Lord – a Winter Solstice Tale” to 1972 with my story, “The Happy Heart.” In the intervening years that wooden chest shows up in 1495 Isle of Jersey, 1679 Amsterdam, 1823 London, 1862 Charleston, 1921 Portland, Oregon, and 1943 Washington D.C. It sure gets around.
In “The Happy Heart,” the chest sits in the shop window of a reluctant psychic hoping to stay afloat in the turbulent 1970s. The chest has seen a lot, but nothing quite like the groovy flower-power setting of the Bay Area.
The psychic, Celeste, stores her tarot cards in the chest, along with some inherited paranormal paraphernalia. We meet her just as her premier client, a Pucci-wearing socialite from San Francisco is about to arrive, desperate for a fortune-telling session. What happens next will change both their lives.
So why did I choose to write about an era that occurs a century after the eras I’ve written about in my novels? One that many wouldn’t even consider “historical?”
To answer the latter question, fiction is considered “historical” if it happens fifty years or more prior to the date of publication. That puts us squarely in 1972.
And to answer the first—as I toyed with various eras to explore, I found myself pulled back to the time just prior to my own arrival in Berkeley, California (which makes me a historical relic, I guess.)
I landed in Berkeley in 1980 with a newly minted English degree and a sparkling new wedding ring. My husband started law school and I commuted into San Francisco to a receptionist job to pay the rent. It was about then that I started writing my first short story that wasn’t generated by a school assignment.
That story was also set in Berkeley—though it wasn’t historical fiction, but rather grounded in the Dress for Success, Me Generation era I found myself in. I was a fish out of water, an Idaho farm girl transplanted to a place that bore little resemblance to where I’d been. As with all fiction, my story took a familiar (and familiar to me) story—a young woman tries to figure out her path while confronting her own expectations and limitations—and set it in my new world, the wacky wonderland often referred to as the People’s Republic of Berkeley.
Novelist and short story writer George Saunders says that “any work of art quickly reveals itself to be a linked system of problems.” Furthermore, he notes that by the end of writing a novel or a short story, you discover that “what was a problem really did become an opportunity.”
The problems that Celeste encounters in “The Happy Heart” range from the mundane to the mystical. She needs rent money today, but she also wants to discover a life-long vocation. She’s following in her mother’s footsteps but do the shoes she’s wearing—in this case, a pair of purple Birkenstocks—really fit?
Setting up the problems and solving some of them was an opportunity to discover new characters, motivations and a new historical setting. I’m constantly amazed at the directions the muse—and a few tarot cards (part of my writing practice that bled into this story)—can take me!
Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.