Third-form English students enjoyed an opportunity after dinner on October 16, 2019, to meet with the author of a short story they’d read in class. Woodberry Forest School English teacher Ted Blain engaged the entire form in a talk about his mystery story “Other People’s Litter,” a whodunit published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 2008.
Students were interested in Ted’s writing process, and much of the session was devoted to discussion of the revision process. Ted said he wrote “Other People’s Litter” over eighteen months, frequently setting the project aside. But he would revisit it later because, “the characters would come knocking on my backdoor. I realized the story had a heartbeat and I needed to keep working on it.”
He went through twelve versions, the first of which bore little resemblance to the published story students read.
“I began with an image of the Smoky Mountains, where I’d gone for the wedding of two friends,” he said.
But as he wrote, the role and actions of his main character — the college student Buster, who also appears in other of Ted’s fictional works — changed dramatically. In addition to changing the plot as the iterations proliferated, Ted also trimmed the length of the story, following the advice commonly shared with students to, in the words of E.B. White, “omit needless words.” He said, “I put every word in the story on trial for its life.”
Students also wanted to know what writers and experiences inspired Ted’s writing. He mentioned a favorite novelist, Ed McBain, whose police procedurals he devoured in college. And he shared that every experience in his life might later influence his writing.
“Whenever I see a play or a movie,” he said, “I never know when I might draw on that.”
The third formers asked about how Ted manages the problems they often face as students writing for school assignments. In response to a question about what he does when he runs out of ideas, Ted shared that he often leaves the computer and heads outdoors for a walk. Other residents of the Forest, seeing him on his daily rambles, may not realize Ted is on really on a quest for the eureka moment that will get him unstuck on a piece of writing.
Ted Blain, who has published two mystery novels and numerous short stories under the name W. Edward Blain, has taught English at Woodberry for thirty-seven years, thirty-two of them as department chair. He currently teaches fifth- and sixth-form English. Ted has announced his retirement in 2020, making this opportunity to meet with him especially valuable for the class of 2023.