My latest Storyville column is all about writing dynamic settings. I’m a big believer in grounding your work in reality, whether you write literary stories that focus on an internal monologue, or fantastic stories set in distant galaxies. I hate stories with floating heads that don’t tell me where I am. So, here are some tips on how to deliver the goods by revealing character, using all five senses, and painting with broad brush stokes so that you allow your audience to picture the setting while bringing their own history and experiences onto the stage. Hope it helps!
My new Storyville column is now up, and in this column, I dissect one of my favorite bits of short fiction, “Maker of Flight.” Why do I love this story? Partly because it has a sweetness at its center—it’s one of the few stories of mine I can actually read to my children. Every once in awhile they’ll quote the last line, “I wonder if the sky is still blue?” back to me and it just melts my heart. I also love it because it was the winner of the 2009 “Enter the world of Filaria” contest over at ChiZine. The contest asked you to write a flash story (under 1,000 words) that was based in the world of one of their titles, Filaria, by Brent Hayward. It’s a fantastic book, and I really enjoyed this challenge. I hope you get something out of the dissection. And pick up some ChiZine titles, they do great work over there. I also loved In the Mean Time by Paul Tremblay and Sarah Court by Craig Davidson.
Bob Pastorella and I talk about the masters of horror, Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Head on over to his blog to see our lists of the five best from each author. I’ve taken King, and he’s taken Koontz. Who do YOU enjoy more?
When I think back to when and where my writing career really started, about five years ago, one of the first names that pops into my head is Nik Korpon. He was there when I discovered what neo-noir was all about, and he’s been a brother-in-arms ever since. With the release of Bar Scars (Snubnose Press) he puts together a compelling collection of neo-noir fiction that is always entertaining, thought provoking, and unexpected. Since we both have collections coming out with Snubnose this month, I’m going to talk about Bar Scars, and he’s going to talk about my collection, Herniated Roots, over at his blog. So check out both posts, it’ll definitely be worth your time.
“This Will All End Well”
SYNOPSIS: A man walks in on his girl with another guy. Or does he?
COMMENTS: With a title like “This Will All End Well,” you know it can only be the opposite. What Nik does so well here is set you up, again and again. First, it’s the cheating wife, the politician tossing money on the floor, begging for forgiveness, caught in the act. Then, it’s the fact that she hasn’t been cheating at all, this is all a set up, they’re in on this caper together. But there’s more here. And that’s what I love about Nik’s work, it just goes deeper. Adding in his usual lyrical voice and ability to turn a phrase, set the stage, and you have a great opening story to his collection.
“A Sparrow With White Scars”
SYNOPSIS: A man in a bar has an ongoing relationship with a young girl.
COMMENTS: Tension is another thing that Nik does really well. I was nervous throughout this whole story. An underage girl, a man who is spending time with her when he shouldn’t, love that knows no rules. The violence fans out in every direction, and in the end, it’s a brutal story, one that cause you to shift loyalties several times.
QUOTE: “Darla straddled a stool, listening to a man in a white polyester suit tell a joke. He looked like a Messiah Elvis. Her pockets peeked below the frayed edge of her jean shorts, a bikini strap caressing her neck underneath a tank top the color of a fresh bruise. She threw her head back when she laughed, tender breasts rocking, slender throat pale and exposed and I could taste the salt on her neck, smell the hot sweat on her thighs. When the troll turned to order drinks for them, she glanced over to me, licked her teeth and winked. My stomach filled with moths and metal shards.”
SYNOPSIS: A man prepares to propose to his girl, but an accident ruins everything.
COMMENTS: Of course the title gives you the first clue, “Intersections.” This story moves along at nice clip—we see the seedy underbelly of Baltimore, a guy trying to get out from under a rock, no more working for Mr. Harry. And in one evening things take a dark turn. I thought I knew where this one was going, too, and the tension, that beautiful moment when you get a shock through your system, muttering to yourself, “No, no…it can’t be.” And then you think, he’s going to get away with it, it’s okay, you realize there is a tape, and there is proof now, and everything spins out of control. Nik is very adept at creating these situations, things get bad, and then they get worse, and then there’s no way out.
“That Pale Light in the West”
SYNOPSIS: A confrontation in a bar does not go well.
COMMENTS: In a very short period of time, two pages here, we get the whole story. It doesn’t feel like a set-up from the beginning, but at some point you know it’s going to go wrong. The last line is heavy. It’s nice to know that psychopaths have rules.
“Alex and the Music Box”
SYNOPSIS: A man sneaks into an ex-girlfriend’s apartment to get something turns out bad.
COMMENTS: The tension of not only sneaking back into an ex-girlfriend’s apartment but then her coming home with a guy? Man, that’s tough. Poetic at times this story, like much of Nik’s work, has layers, and we keep getting into it deeper and deeper until there’s no way out. I like that he leaves it open, the ending. We’re left with that anxiety of what to do.
QUOTE: “I lay listening to breath drift from my mouth for minutes or hours. Rub my palms over my cheeks. I blow on her hand, and when she doesn’t move, I slide around it and stand. Naked, sweaty and flushed, she’s sprawled over her bed like a gunshot victim. Red phantom fingers wrap around her neck. I want to lay my hands on them, pretend they’re mine again. No smell of latex and I hope she doesn’t regret this tomorrow. I kneel beside her, penitent.”
“She Sleeps Beneath Clouds of Embers”
SYNOPSIS: Foggy memories and a strange hotel room lead to some very strange moments.
COMMENTS: “This is one of Nik’s more atmospheric pieces, and really, doesn’t a foggy memory, bruises and a dildo always lead to trouble? There is a sadness that permeates this story, the last line echoing desperation and loss. And somehow in the midst of this Baer inspired madness he made me laugh twice.”
SYNOPSIS: A fighter runs into a bit of bad luck.
COMMENTS: “This one kind of breaks my heart. I hate it when the good guy gets screwed over by a crooked cop, some palooka trying to work his way out of the gutter with his fists, or some straight blue collar job, but the man keeps pushing him down. The ending just makes me sad.”
“His Footsteps are Made of Soot”
SYNOPSIS: When his mother’s memories and bruised love can’t be ignored any longer, our protagonist opts for a risky surgery.
COMMENTS: “This might be the best story in the collection. It’s the back and forth between the basement surgeries he assists and the broken body and mind (and heart) of his mother that really pulls you in. The final scene, and the final words (or lack thereof) are so powerful, they just echo out into the silence. Classic Korpon.”
EXCERPT #1: “Sometimes things happen in home surgery, and it’s easier to be objective when the body doesn’t have a name, an address, a way
they take their coffee. Everything’s easier when history is malleable.”
EXCERPT #2: “I just nod and lay down, close my eyes. A muted rainbow of dots float across the flesh inside my eyelids. I focus, try to rearrange them into a halftone print of a family portrait with only two people. Inhale. The smell of damp smoke floods my nostrils, and Marcel gave up cigarettes years ago when his wife died of cancer. Exhale. The sound of game-show audiences drowns out scratchy country guitars. Inhale. A fist of cheap cologne, vodka and the burnt baby laxative used to cut dope crushes my nose. Exhale. A whiff of ash, of baby powder, of Mom’s shampoo from when I was younger that always reminded me of cut grass. Inhale. Nitrous oxide and Marcel’s liquid voice telling me to count to ten. Somewhere beyond my ears, past bloody eyelids and clenched fists and bruised legs and pipe-burnt chests, Hank Williams drags his voice over broken glass in the darkness.”
SYNOPSIS: Hanging out in a local bar you can only get yourself in trouble.
COMMENTS: “This story touches on those lost moments, things you can’t get back, better days. I love the way he doesn’t tell this story in chronological order, it makes it much more powerful.”
This is a great collection of Nik’s work. Chuck Palahniuk said something like “Teach me something, make me laugh, and then break my heart.” And that’s what Nik does. Whether it’s educating me about Baltimore or basement surgeries, boxing or drug dealing, his stories always resonate with authority. He also has a way of turning a phrase, juxtaposing words in a way that is totally unique, his own language. And he also creates plots that aren’t what you expect, layers and turns that keep you guessing. He’s one of my favorite neo-noir authors going, and if you haven’t read his work before, this is a great place to start.
Also, keep an eye out for a future project we’re doing together entitled Four Corners, a series of four novellas that Nik and I, along with Caleb J. Ross and Axel Taiari have written and are currently shopping. It’s some of his best work to date, I think. You can find more of his work on Amazon, of course. I suggest Stay God as well as By the Nails of the Warpriest.
READ HIS COMMENTS ON MY COLLECTION, HERNIATED ROOTS, HERE.