9 February 2017

How to write flash fiction, RNLI-style

Not got the time to write that novel? Then tell us a shorter story with Writer and RNLI Helm Eleanor Hooker.

Imagine you’ve had a great idea for a story. The house is quiet and the words are flowing. Then your RNLI pager sounds. What would you do?

If you’re Eleanor Hooker, you don’t hesitate: ‘If my pager goes off, I go, no question. There has only been one occasion when I forgot to hit ‘save’ on my computer!’

Eleanor is a volunteer helm on the inshore lifeboat on Lough Derg, Co Tipperary. With Eleanor at the helm, the Lough Derg crew saved many people in 2016, including a fisherman stuck on a rocky shoal and a crew of nine on a cruiser, plus a horse.

She’s also a published poet and known for her flash fiction; she was awarded first prize by Richard Skinner in the UK Bare Fiction Flash Fiction competition in 2016.

Eleanor with her debut collection of poems, The Shadow Owner's Companion, and at the helm of Lough Derg RNLI's B class inshore lifeboatPhoto: (left) Geraldine Wisdom (right) RNLI/Nicholas Leach
Eleanor with her debut collection of poems, The Shadow Owner's Companion, and at the helm of Lough Derg RNLI's B class inshore lifeboat

What is flash fiction?

One of the best known pieces of flash fiction is Ernest Hemingway’s; just six words:

‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’

Eleanor remembers reading this for the first time: ‘It gave me goosebumps. The best flash fiction may resonate with you for the rest of your life.’

Flash fiction has one rule: stick to the word count

Some flash fiction is as short as Hemingway’s, others as long as 1,000 words. It can about be anything you like: it can be sad or silly, thought-provoking or trivial.

It might not take long to write, but a successful story has been through a rigorous edit.

She explains the difference in forms: ‘With novels you write sentence by sentence, with flash fiction it’s word by word, and with poetry it’s about syllable counts and soundscapes.’

Here’s 473 words of flash fiction from Eleanor herself, to show us how it’s done:

How did Eleanor get into flash fiction?

Eleanor explains that she has been telling stories since she was a child. In a large family, she’d tell funny stories at meal times to make her father laugh. As a nurse in intensive care, she used humour and stories to de-mystify the medical kit for anxious patients and their relatives. When she had her own children she made up stories to fill their imaginations with magic and wonder.

She uses her skills wisely on the lifeboat too: ‘Whenever you’re out on a shout and dealing with distressed people, an essential part of your kit is your smile and your humour.’

Eleanor recalls the time she was out with fellow crew members Colin Knight and Johnny Hoare. She gave the casualties a story to tell for the rest of their lives, by highlighting they’d been rescued by ‘a Knight, a Hoare and a Hooker!’

The darker side of life

Full of warmth and wit, Eleanor doesn’t shy away from darker subjects. She uses water as a metaphor and has written poems about her experiences on the lifeboat. Don’t expect a happy ending in all her work. Eleanor’s poems reflect the gritty reality of search and rescue, where you never know what the outcome will be.

What makes you good at writing?

‘Trial and error’ is what Eleanor puts her success down to. ‘You improve your writing by reading voraciously, by writing, getting on with it and finishing projects. If you start the piano, you can’t play Chopin straight away, you need to practise regularly.’

‘You hear the phrase "it wrote itself". That rarely happens. ’
Eleanor Hooker
Writer and RNLI helm

Whenever inspiration comes, she jots any ideas down in a notebook. ‘I come to a story with a notion - a fragment of a dream, something that impresses me, or even an injustice. There’s always a truth in the story.’

There’s not a hint of egotism with Eleanor, who has recently published her second collection of poetry, A Tug of Blue: ‘If your work gets rejected, don’t get dejected, go back to the piece, edit, even consider a re-write.

'You have to put your ego to one side, it must be about the writing and your willingness to revisit the piece. There may be times when all that's needed is for your work to be considered by a different editor. Trust your instincts too.’

According to Eleanor, the best writers have ‘innate talent, they know their craft; the nuts and bolts of writing’ and when she’s not writing or saving lives, she encourages new authors and poets at the Dromineer Literary Festival.

Even during the actual festival, lifeboats come first with Eleanor: ‘Several times my pager’s gone off in the middle of the festival. You never know when you’ll get a shout.’

What she recommends for flash fiction also applies to her life afloat:

‘I learned from the Irish short story Writer Claire Keegan that when there’s drama, quieten down your writing. Do the best you can. Believe in yourself.’

If you’re feeling inspired by Eleanor, be brave and give flash fiction a go! We’d love to read your work. Write up to 300 words on the theme of saving lives at sea, and share your story via the Facebook comments below.