The evolution of A Ring Set Not with Garnet but Sardius

William shows the process from initial idea to finished story for “A Ring Set Not With Garnet But Sardius”

We’ve been talking about writing short stories over on the AML’s Discord server, and while general advice is good (and the advice given was great), I think it can be useful to see specific examples of the processes we tend to describe in often abstract, terms.

“A Ring Set Not with Garnet but Sardius” from my BCC Press collection The Darkest Abyss: Strange Mormon Stories is my longest gestating story—from initial idea to publication—to date. So I thought it’d be interesting to both writers and readers to track the evolution of the story. You do not need to have read the story to find this useful. Nor will I be spoiling the ending.


The White Shoe Irregular, a sort of low-key McSweeney’s contemporary, was the first publication to ever feature my work. Quinn Warnick ran the site from 2000 to 2003 and at one point held a first paragraph contest, which I won third place in with this paragraph:

Other than a flannel shirt, the most essential accessory for retrieving a squirrel carcass from the thicket of juniper bushes in Mrs. Whitlock’s front yard is an axe handle. The line kept rushing into her mind as she crouched in the back seat of a black and white, post-war Wartburg that was violently gliding along the brick streets of Cluj-Napoca. The driver braked hard and the young gypsy boy beside her, head shaved and wrapped in a cloth diaper, pitched forward, slammed against the front bench seat, and slid onto the floor. She thought he was going to start crying so she grabbed his right hand, gently pressing her fingers into his palm. The boy looked up and then began shaking her hand with childish vigor. “Hello. How are you today, Mr. Brown?” he said in a trim voice. “I am quite well, thank you,” he continued. Her eyes shimmered with incomprehension. He tried again. “Hello. How are you, Mr. Brown?” Her eyes shone with uncertainty. He tugged at the diaper on his head and began to yell. “Hello! Hello, American lady! Lucky Strike! Lucky Strike! Dallas! J.R.! Whiskey!” He paused to reload his breath. “Change money!?”

I cringe to read it now. And not just because of the writing. I didn’t know until a couple of years later that most Roma don’t like to be called gypsy. The opening line is one of those grabby lines that’s overused in short fiction. The comedy to it is too desperately trying to be a cool kid.

However, this image of a young woman huddled in the back seat of a speeding Wartburg alongside a young Roma boy persisted.

Like several of my stories, it spun out of my memories of my LDS mission to Romania. The Roma boy with a diaper on his head because he had had lice was someone I actually met in an orphanage in Bucharest. And there were a handful of post-war Wartburgs in operation in Bucharest when I lived there.


In 2003, I decided to revisit the story. I don’t remember why or where I intended to submit it. But here are the first part of my notes:


Notes for story based on paragraph above:

–drop the shimmering with incomprehension bit


Julie – exchange student from BYU working in sector 1 orphanage (that has Michael Jackson playground) for the summer.

Gypsy boy – paduc! – she notices that the usually indifferent staff took pains to keep him out of her sight/way

Attends LDS branch – You – tach-h. Calinescus wanted to share picks from their SLC trip; Stanescus wanted to talk about their daughter – temple square mission, etc.

Dani – Roma – talked briefly. One day J. mentions gypsy boy. Dani asks for description – she has photo (or not, but develops roll of film?). He has strange look on face as looks at pic.

Later, J. is waiting for subway , a man comes up to her and introduces himself as the king of the gypsies – tall, long gray overcoat, wearing loafers like most Romanian men – thin mint nylon socks.

The notes go on for another 380 words to complete a very, very rough outline.

And yet for all its’ roughness, the key fact of the story is there: a young, female BYU student agrees to kidnap a young Roma boy from an orphanage and receives a tin of caviar and a garnet ring as thanks for doing so.

A day later I add a bit to the garnet ring idea:


“I have something for you as well,” he said, reaching his hand into his coat pocket and taking a step closer to her.

Her eyes were fixed on his closed hand as he stretched it out. When his arm was fully extended, she blinked out of her reverie and held her hand out. He cupped his hand, and then tilted it, his fingers were extended and hovered right above her palm, but did not touch. She felt the weight on her palm and looked down. It was a silver ring set with a large round rough-cut, garnet. She went to slip it onto the index finger of her left hand, but it was too large so she moved it over to the middle finger. It clinked against her CTR ring.

Now I can’t tell you where all of the above came from—I don’t remember. But I can tell you the process by which it happened: I returned to that terrible paragraph I wrote and decided to turn it into a short story. And I did so by asking myself questions: who was this young woman and why was she in Bucharest? How did she meet the young Roma boy? Why would she agree to steal him from the orphanage? Who would help her take him and how? And if it was the self-described King of the Gypsies, what would he reward her with?

If I had written the story at this point, it would have been a work of literary realism with perhaps a bit of humor added in. But, for whatever reason, I didn’t. And I’m glad about that because of what the story became. First, though, another phase takes place when it’s still in its lit-fic stage.


On 1.3.09, I refine the story idea just a bit—it’s only 171 words of added material, but the key part is that I specify when it was set and figure out why the main character might choose to actually liberate the boy from the orphanage:

why her? Need someone boy trusts so won’t make a fuss when he is taken, can bribe several people and be assured they’ll stay quiet, but not everybody. He wants it known by people that he has done this, but the boy still needs to be stolen – would be undignified to reclaim the boy. People would think that he (or rather his daughter or son) dropped him off in the first place.

Time period? – 1996-97? early days of internet, no cell phone

I’m not sure why I revisited this idea at that time. But it’s probably because I was going through my ideas and decided to look at this one and realized it needed a bit more work done on it.

I keep everything in text files. I have one huge list of ideas, but once an idea becomes fleshed out beyond 10-200 words or so, I create a separate file for it, and every so often I go through those and see if I have any additional ideas—or if I feel motivated to write the story.

This is six years later. And less than 200 words of activity. But it keeps the story alive.


More than ten years later, I revisit the idea again. This is in July 2019. At this point, I’m looking for stories to add to the collection of strange Mormon stories I’m planning. I restate the story in brief:

tell the story of the female BYU student in the early (mid?) 1990s who steals the gypsy (Roma) boy from the orphanage and hands him over to the “King of the Gypsies”

And then I add the experimental/speculative element:

As part of that include later–days later, months later, years later, decades later, just: later

And give some examples:

later – cans of caviar are confiscated at the airport because she had no receipt for them

later – would try caviar for the first time at …

later would see a TV report about the marriage of the daughter of the self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies and he looked nothing like the elegant, tall, silver-haired man

It’s all very rough, but it’s this idea that unlocks the story. How and why do certain moments, especially ones we have in our twenties (this wasn’t going to be a story about childhood or adolescence), reverberate throughout our lives?

This is important because if you’re writing a story just to relate events, then it’s quite likely that it’s not going to be a very interesting one. Don’t get me wrong: character, plot, and setting are all important. It’s just that it’s helpful to arrive at a point where you understand what your story is about. Not that you need to be able to explain it as a thesis statement or whatever, but you do need to have a vague notion of what you’re muddling your way towards.

And when it comes to speculative fiction and/or experimenting with form/structure etc. in a story, it’s going to be a lot more satisfying if those elements tie in to what the story is about.


Still no first draft written, though!

Another phase of ideation happens: a full outline. I don’t always write an outline before I write a short story. In fact, I often don’t. But because this had been in development for so long, I had the pieces for it, so here it is—note that I wrote this out in long hand and then typed it in and while doing so added a change [in brackets] and had a section where I couldn’t read my own writing [also in brackets]:

{April 21, 2020}

Scene 1: lice

Scene 2: discussion at church about orphanage with several sisters

Scene 3: lunch with another student (who has gypsy complaints?)

Scene 4: scene from orphanage, something semi-suspicious or weird

Scene 5: a warning [skip this – not needed]

Scene 6: initial request from church member and refusal by protag

Scene 7: request made by “gypsy king” in metro station, protag will consider it

Scene 8: break from orphanage–ride along w/dude who helps street kids, she decides to do it

Scene 9: [illegible], break out, Wartburg

Scene 10: with the gypsy king

Scene 11: denouement

For each scene we need at least one “later”

Characters needed: –orphanage director –two workers (older women) –1 worker (maybe student intern) younger who speaks some English –lunch friend, other BYU student –women at church –female church member connected to the gypsy king –Roma boy in orphanage –drive/bodyguard for king –translator for king –customs officials

Note: need to suggest that the garnet ring has powers – how she gets through customs, also something lucky related to her children. GK: since you have made my family whole I will bless your future family

Not all of these characters and scenes made it in as written here. But it’s pretty close. I don’t know whether you need to outline your short stories or not. What I will say is that if you’ve never done it and you have a hard time finishing first drafts, then you should try writing an outline for your next few stories. It’s important to learn how to see the shape of a short story—even if for some stories you write that shape remains in your head. Being able to see the shape and diagnose where it needs to be pared, expanded, excised is key to successful first drafts and revisions.

Novels, by the way, are different. They need an outline/structure even if it’s one you write down after you’ve written the first draft. It’s impossible to keep the full shape and flow of a novel in your head, and it’s so much easier if you have something to write toward. That doesn’t mean you need every chapter and scene rigidly written out. But you need to know the height of your wall and once you finish a row, it’s good to figure out the bricks you’ll need to lay the next one and where this sits in relation to the last row.


Finally, a day later (April 22, 2020), I write the beginning of the story:

Later – much later – she would realize that there was nothing wrong with treasuring certain things up in her heart, but initially [NAME] felt guilty about lying to her parents about the origin of the garnet ring she wore on her right hand next to the sterling silver and onyx CTR ring they had purchased for her in the BYU bookstore the year she turned sixteen. Not guilty enough to tell them the truth, of course. And definitely not guilty enough to stop wearing the ring. But guilty nonetheless even though she was fairly certain she had technically done nothing wrong. Had indeed righted a wrong even if the precise details of both the initial wrong and her righting of it were murky to her.

Later, they would grow murkier.

Note that this isn’t the beginning of the story you read in the collection—nor is it even the one found in the first draft. But it sets the key template for the prose. The use of later/much later. The mixing of precise details with abstract observations. And the sense that this event sets our main character on a path where she is willing to push a bit on the edges of things.

I find writing the opening of a story the best way help me determine if the story is ready to be written.


I write the first draft from May to June 2020. It comes in at 6,961 words. Long for a short story, but justified, I think, by the fact that the story it’s telling isn’t just the initial set of events the idea started out with, but is telling Michelle’s entire life story. Earlier, I had abandoned the idea of using “On Sunday” or “On Tuesday” to indicate scene changes and structure the story. That all comes back after I realize that if I’m going to hop around time with the laters and much laters and much much laters, then I need something to ground the events of the main story.

As I write, I keep pushing the story into the future. It becomes science fictional, but not strongly so. As I write about the garnet ring, I realize that whatever supernatural power it has needs to be subtle. If you’re going to write (for lack of a better term) literary SF&F, then balancing out the literary memetic and speculative elements becomes very important.

I also make the decision to not break out dialogue into its own paragraphs. This is a reader unfriendly decision, but I want the story to flow in chunks, in units.

And, after the tense switching gives me trouble in the first few paragraphs, I decide that the story needs to be told entirely in present tense. Another thing that might turn off readers (and does me as a reader at times), but makes sense to me for this story because of how I’m playing with narrative time. Everything can be in present tense because we’re using the ‘later tags’ to indicate changes in time.

At one point, I panic and realize that garnet is not one of the precious stones mentioned in Revelations. But then, after searching online, I realize that garnet and sardius can sometimes be mistaken for each other and the mistake becomes the main character’s as well and adds to the resonances I’ve been building in the story.


I completed the first revision on July 16, 2020. The story came in at 7,357 words. Often for a revision, I will create a bulleted list of items that need fixing. It’s important that you give yourself at least one day, generally four, ideally a week or two between completing the first draft and revising it. There needs to be some distance in order for you to recognize what needs fixing.

I didn’t create a bulleted list for this revision. All I wrote was this: “husband is referred to as both just husband and as Mark–change instances to Mark, also decide which laters really add to the story and which don’t and also look for other insertion points”

Fixing continuity errors and enforcing style choices is an important part of revision.

Even more important, especially with your first revision, is getting the balance of scenes right, making sure the story opens in the right place (beginning writers often start their stories too early) and that the ending is the best ending (this is where I will often brainstorm 2-5 [but as much seven to ten] other ways I could end the story). For this revision, I keep the original ending, although I break the final paragraph into two pieces.

With speculative fiction the continuity and the balancing are intertwined. You need to explain enough but not over-explain. Often the word count should go down, but I tend to under-write, so mine usually goes up from the first draft to the second draft.

After Draft 2 is where I might get feedback from other writers. But I’m no longer in an active writers group, and, to be honest, this is not a story I was interested in getting feedback on because I had such a particular vision for it.

That being said: feedback is good. Get it if you can. It can be hard to get good feedback. There is a lot of advice out there about this, and especially on writers group. Unlike some of the other writing advice you find, most of the advice on writers groups and critiques is good.


If my first revision has gone well, then I can often get away with one more revision. That wasn’t true when I was first started out as a writer. And even now some stories need more radical changes from draft one to draft two (or three, four, five, etc.) than happened with this story.

But this last draft focuses on line edits—polishing the prose. I typically want the word count for the line edits revision to go down. This is the revision where you tighten everything up.

This one took place July 24, 2020 and came in at 7,332 words. Only 25 words fewer than draft two, but with more words changed than that, and a draft I’m happy with.

And so, almost two decades after the first idea, “A Ring Set Not with Garnet but Sardius” is ready for to be included in the manuscript for The Darkest Abyss: Strange Mormon Stories.

2 thoughts on “The evolution of A Ring Set Not with Garnet but Sardius”

  1. This story was my favorite in your book. The suspense, the mystery, the possibilities pulled me in.

    Thanks for sharing this origin story, too. The creative process is fascinating.

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