Playing with the narrative


Hampton, Oregon

Hampton, Oregon


Conventional wisdom says you don’t mix first person narrative with third person. In my novel-in-progress, Thunderhead, of course, I’m doing exactly that. I’m also toying with the narrative form. One of the forms I’d trying is transcription of telephone calls, telegraph messages and surveillance recordings. Here’s an example of a bugged conversation of Harkness and his friends in the room in the back of the barber shop:

Harkness: Ed, get settled and tell us about the flying saucers.

Judge: Ain’t no such thing.

Harkness: Hold your horses. Go ahead Eddie.

Sound of papers rattling.

Dilkes: A flurry of reports of unidentified objects came during a two-week period in late June and early July, 1947. The sightings ranged over a large portion of the western United States. Independent witnesses described the objects as saucers or disks, sometimes flying erratically, sometimes hovering or flying at speeds estimated at 1300 miles per hour.

Harley: Saucers. Like the ones over Oaks Park up in Portland?

Dilkes: Exactly, they were among those reported. A total of eight police officers from three different agencies, two aviation pilots and a river pilot reported spotting those objects over the Columbia or Willamette on June 28th, 1947.

Harkness: Wasn’t one of those coppers a Sergeant?

Dilkes: Actually, two Sergeants, one for Portland Police and one for the Clark County Sheriff’s Department across the Columbia. Another witness was the Captain of the Harbor Patrol.

Judge: Poppycock.

Harkness: No. Something was happening. Maybe one copper could be hitting the sauce, maybe even two, but not all eight. And pilots, back in the war, I flew in puddle jumpers dropping onto little atolls all across the Pacific. Perilous stuff. There’s no body more level-headed than a pilot.

Redmond: Still

Harkness: I’m not all that convinced that them lights are little green men from Mars. Back when I was young and stupid—

Judge: Last week?


Harkness: Before I was so rudely interrupted, when I was 16 going on seventeen, I rode line for the Johnnie Wangler down in the Hampton Buttes.

Redmond: Mean country, Hampton.

Harkness: Mean country, dry and hot, not fit for nothing but scorpions and rattlers, but I loved it. Spent a year and a half down there, stringing barbed wire, digging out silted over springs, tending cattle—

Redmond: Thought you didn’t ride.

Harkness: People change, but horses don’t. Anyhow, we worked hard. Not much to do in the evenings, being 70 miles from either Bend or Burns. Some nights, we’d truck back to Brothers or Millican and buy a bottle of whiskey, me and a kid named Jonesy and an old desert rat named Sherm, then we’d head up into the buttes and chase the lights.

Harley: Lights?

Harkness: Damnest thing. At night, long about 2 am, lights would play on the side of one of the buttes, bright like Hollywood searchlights. We’d pile in our Model T pick-me-up and ride hootin’ and hollerin’ through the desert up to the bottom of the butte. By time we got there, the lights would be gone. No, not gone, moved, to another butte. Off we’d go again, chasing lights until we ran out of gas or whiskey. What I’m saying is that we saw things out in the buttes that can’t be explained by science.

Harley: Indian spirits.

Harkness: Not saying that, but I do think we could be dealing with a natural phenomena here and something up on Grizzly is either creating the phenomena or stirring up the elements.

Harley: Let’s assume that something is going on. What does that mean for us?

Harkness: Don’t rightly know yet.

The passages about the flying saucers are drawn from actual newspaper accounts of the time. Hampton Buttes do exist and they are very mean country indeed, and back when I was young and stupid, I chased the lights just like Harkness.

The novel opens with Agnes Flehardy seeing lights zipping around Grizzly Mountain. Thunderhead is set in 1953, prime time for flying saucer mania. I want to capture the mood of that time, but I really don’t want little green men clogging up my narrative. With this passage, I’m trying to steer the narrative back to magic realism–not an easy task since American literature doesn’t have the tradition of it that Latin and South American cultures do. I’m honestly not sure it will work.

Oh yes, this is all from my first rough draft, so please excuse, typos, grammatical errors and general cheesiness.

Just speak into the microphone



A couple of days ago, I had the honor of being interview by Barry Eva of A Book and a Chat fame. Being an introvert with a phobia of public speaking, I was nervous going in, but Barry was wonderful. He’s a great host, thoughtful, kind and articulate. His research for our interview was spot on. He’s obviously read this blog, my book and the reviews.

If you want to publicize an upcoming book, I’d highly recommend contacting Barry and seeing if he has an opening on his program. Check out his blog and his book, Across the Pond, published under the pen name Storyheart.

You can find a recording my interview on his blog here.




“I’m so nervous. They’re workshopping my story this afternoon.” Workshop used as a verb may not be listed in Websters, but the term is commonly used by many experienced writers. To workshop a story or novel chapter means that other people in a critique group read your work, then comment on it with the goal of assisting you in making your story better and in the end helping you be a stronger writer.

Do you need to have your prose workshopped? Is Rush Limbaugh nuts? Almost all writers can benefit from the workshop experience. I remember one writer who participated in a workshop for the first time. His prose was achingly beautiful, but his narrative technique, characterization and plotting were rudimentary. His progression over a few weeks was amazing Workshops come in all shapes and sizes. Some are big, some are small. I had the honor of attending a large biweekly critique group of science fiction/fantasy heavy hitters sponsored by Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith down in Eugene a couple of times. That group would have 20 attendees or more. Processes vary. Most groups have you submit your story a week or two before the meeting, so folks can read it and prepare their comments. In one speculative fiction critique group hosted by Mick and Mary Beth O’Halloran. Each of us would read our stories out loud and the comments would be made on the fly. I’m not sure about the depth of the comments, but reading your prose out loud does provide you with a helpful sense of the flow and pacing of your story.

Where do you find that elusive workshop experience? My first experience was through Mt. Hood Community College. They offered a weekly class in story writing. The class was fairly basic. We worked through writing exercises with the goal of creating one finished short story by the end of the term. To be honest, the main benefit of the class was just to provide encouragement for the participants.

If you’ve been writing a while, you might check out writer’s conferences. I know that the Key West Literary Seminar hosts workshops the week before their main conference. A couple of organizations exclusively host workshops. Haystack Program of the Arts was the one of the best I attended. Alas, they’ve folded. The Iowa Summer Writing Festival is just as good, perhaps better. The classes are taught by Iowa MFA grads and the University of Iowa treats the attendees very well. If you’re a science fiction/fantasy writer with seven weeks to blow, check out Clarion Writer’s Workshop. Graduation may not guarantee publication, but be sure agents and editors will take notice if you mention that you’re a Clarion graduate in your query letter. Be forewarned, Clarion isn’t for the faint of heart.  They’ll work your fanny off and you’ll have to submit your best stuff to get accepted.

If travel to a workshop isn’t convenient for you, check around your local area. Annie Bloom’s Books here in Portland hosted a dandy eight-week thriller/mystery workshop led by author April Henry. Check your local writer’s organizations. Willamette Writers often puts on Saturday workshops. Locally, I often see writers’ workshops advertised on the net or on Craigslist. I would be careful joining an unknown group. If they charge a fee, be careful. Ask to sit in on a session to see if the group is right for you.

Best of all, join a writers’ group. Joining a group is an important step in your writing life. Many writers’ groups use the workshop process. Ask around. See if someone is looking for a member. If not, think about starting a group yourself.

You’ve got that story sitting on your computer. Get out there and workshop that sucker. You’ll be a better writer for it. If enough of us do it, maybe workshopping will be listed in Websters someday.



Reviews for Harkness

“If you like western mysteries and conflicted heroes, you should give Harkness a try.” –The Book Connection

“Bigham has done an excellent job with his debut release. He has created a protagonist in Matt Harkness readers will want to visit with again and again.” –Thoughts in Progress

“Definitely a great series for those who love cowboys and the 50′s. I thoroughly enjoyed this story and couldn’t put it down until the killer was nabbed!” –Community Bookstop

“Overall readers who enjoy a fast paced story with more than a few plot twists set during a simpler time and place with down to earth characters that lend the story a sense of authenticity will certainly enjoy ‘Harkness.’ I only hope the author plans on continuing the adventures of Harkness!” –WV Stitcher

“A suspenseful, fun read…I do love a great mystery and this debut novel shouts ‘series’. I recommend it highly.” –CelticLady’s Reviews

“I rarely would give a debut novel a 5 star, but this one earned it fully. I look forward to reading more by this author and hope that this is just the first Harkness Mystery novel.” –Library at the End of the Universe

Harkness and the snake

Just an excerpt from my novel in progress. I’m posting for no other reason that it pleases me. Here, Sheriff Harkness is investigating the murder of a young woman at a local lumbermill. Today is her funeral and Harkness doesn’t do well at church.

As Theus predicted, the day dawned gloomy, my head throbbed, a steady rain pattered down, not the cells of showers and sunbreaks we usually got around these parts, but a sustained drizzle. Gloomy fucking day, indeed.

I cooked up some eggs and potatoes with onions for Donnie and told him to stop by and see his mama before the funeral. He seemed on edge, and maybe talking with his ma would help even him out.

My mood and headache worsened with the weather, so I drove the back roads for a couple of hours after breakfast trying to cheer myself. If this rain continued much longer, they’d muddy up and it would be hell getting to the boondocks until the next dry spell. Better check them now while I had the chance. Addision wasn’t one for the rain; dachshunds aren’t water dogs by any stretch, so he curled up on the seat next to me and slept. Up on the shoulder of Grizzly Mountain, I stopped to take a piss. The dog ignored me when I asked him if he wanted to get out.

This spot was just down the hill from where I discovered Ginny Kelly’s body. Feeling an awful urge, I hiked up to the spot where her body had hung from an ancient juniper. Usually the desert smells clean when the rains come, but here the hillside stunk of corruption. Maybe it was my imagination. There was no body here. Even my vomit had been washed away.

“Why you stupid shit.” A diamondback rattler lay stretched out under the tree, her belly swollen with her last meal, maybe a large rat or a small cottontail. I could almost feel her shivering in the rain. “You’ll die out here.” Sensing me, she tried to curl up into a strike position, but being a cold-blooded critter, her movements were sluggish.

When I reached down, she tried to strike anyway. I jerked my hand up and the top of her open mouth scraped against my fingers. Before she could pull back to strike again, I grabbed her behind the head and picked her up. She was long and old, fifteen rattles at least, chestnut diamonds on her back shaded with maroon.

Her needled fangs dripped with venom. Looking at the length of them, the world greyed out and I felt as if I would swoon. A sense of foreboding overwhelmed me. A vision danced in my mind’s eye, but when I came back, the memory of it was lost, just an awareness of something infinitely old remained.  I was still standing next to the tree, holding the torpid snake. This evil fucking place. Why had I come up here?

I carried the snake to a cairn of rocks. She could curl up there, sleep off her meal and be safe. When I put her down, she looked back, forked tongue vibrating, and then she slipped into the rocks. I looked up towards the top of the mountain, but a ridge obscured the crest. Rain pattered down on my new Stetson, syncopating with the pulsing ache over my right eye. Time to move along before the hat got ruined.

Back in town, I stopped at the Pioneer Park across the street from the Covenant to watch the mourners arrive. Addison wasn’t too pleased when I pulled him from the truck, but he did his business under a drooping elm. He sniffed around the spring flowers while I observed the church from under the tree. Bull Turco puttered out front, sweeping off the entrance steps under the awning, and then setting out a red carpet runner leading to the double doors. He waved when he saw me and wandered over to say morning.

“Peach of a day,” he said in a way of greeting.

“It’s gray and raining, Bull.” We leaned with our backs against the elm, side by side, both of us watching the street.


The Light Dawns: Epiphanies in Fiction

In Christian doctrine, the epiphany refers to the manifestation of God to the Magi in the form of the Christ child. In Stephen Hero, James Joyce adapted this term to secular and literary purposes. An epiphany is, his protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, informs us, “a sudden spiritual manifestation” of the essential nature of a person, situation or object.

David Jauss—Some Epiphanies about Epiphanies, Writers Chronicle

The epiphany has become a common literary technique. Our erstwhile protagonist has an earth-shaking revelation, often accompanied by sunlight bursting through the clouds. Joyce didn’t invest the epiphany; it’s been around long before he set pen to paper, but he did popularize the form. Here’s an example from The Dubliners:

She stood among the swaying crowd in the station at the North Wall. He held her hand and she knew that he was speaking to her, saying something about the passage over and over again. The station was full of soldiers with brown baggages. Through the wide doors of the sheds she caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes. She answered nothing. She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist. If she went, tomorrow she would be on the sea with Frank, steaming towards Buenos Aires. Their passage had been booked. Could she still draw back after all he had done for her? Her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer.

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand: `Come!’

All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.


No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish.

James Joyce—Eveline

Here Eveline has a sudden realization about where her duty lies. There’s no sunlight streaming through the clouds, but she prays to her God to direct her and God answers.

In A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor pulls off the rare double epiphany:

I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children !” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.

Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.

Without his glasses, The Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking. “Take her off and thow her where you thown the others,” he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.

“She was a talker, wasn’t she?” Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Both the Misfit and the grandmother have epiphanies at the end of the story. Some literary critics say that O’Connor’s epiphanies don’t work here, and even though I poke fun at her epiphanies, it’s a wonderful story. Read it and decide for yourself.

Epiphanies don’t necessarily have to come at the end of a story. Here’s an example from my novel in progress, Thunderhead, that occurs early on in the novel:

(Warning: This passage lacks political correctness. I drop the N-word here and a couple of others folks might find offensive.)

“I know you, Matthew Harkness,” she whispered in my ear. “You are a God-fearing man. Join the Passionate Heart. Be with me.” She kissed me. Her tongue slithered into my mouth and danced with mine. My hand caressed the back of her neck and I pulled her hard against me. When we came up for air, she moaned. “I need your passion.” My head spun and I lost track of where I was.

We were in the middle of the second long, lingering kiss when the light dawned as if from above. I pushed her from me and clambered up. “You know what feeds my passion?” I asked.

Her eyes trailed to the erection straining against the fabric of my jeans. “Tell me.” Her eyes filled with promise.

“Not you.” She jerked back as if I had slapped her. My body weaved and I put my hand on her desk to steady myself. “Back when Coach Conroy rampaged through this country, I stopped a Negro man just passing through. Family man. He was heading up to Portland to work in the shipyards. Once he got established, he was going to move his family up there. Nice feller, real nice feller. Expect his family was just as nice, too. He would have fit right in here. Been solid in the community. He’s the kind of feller that anchors a town. But I had to move him along, hit him up along side the head with my sap and run him out of town like some petty vagrant. You know why?” My hands fluttered about and my will couldn’t still them.

Love looked frightened. “Wrong color.”

“Exactly. Wrong color. Some redneck would have burned him out. Dagos and micks and polacks and jerries can live in Barnestown, but not niggers or spics or japs. Why? Because they’re the wrong color. So, why do you all tell folks that Bull’s an Eskimo?” When she didn’t answer, I said, “Because he’s an Injun. A god-fearing Injun and we sure can’t have them kind of folks around here, even if they are good people.” I gulped air as if I were drowning. “There are good God-fearing folks here, but sometimes I hate this town and most everyone in it.”

Here Harkness has two epiphanies, first he realizes that the Reverend Love has drugged him and second that the local racial intolerance sickens him.

Epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes. They can be simple, ‘the light dawned’ or extensive. They’re a little like cayenne pepper, effective but if overdone they ruin the dish. Use them with care, but don’t avoid them altogether.

Red Dragon: Book Recommendation Friday

The door from the porch into the kitchen was patched with plywood where the police had taken out the glass. By flashlight he unlocked it with the key the police had given him. He wanted to turn on lights. He wanted to put on his shiny badge and make some official noises to justify himself to the silent house where five people had died. He did none of that. He went into the dark kitchen and sat down at the breakfast table.

Two pilot lights on the kitchen range glowed blue in the dark. He smelled furniture polish and apples.

The thermostat clicked and the air conditioning came on. Graham started at the noise, felt a trickle of fear. He was an old hand at fear. He could manage this one. He simply was afraid, and he could go on anyway.

He could see and hear better afraid; he could not speak as concisely, and fear sometimes made him rude. Here, there was nobody left to speak to, there was nobody to offend anymore.

Madness came into this house through that door into this kitchen, moving on size-eleven feet. Sitting in the dark, he sensed madness like a bloodhound sniffs a shirt.

Red Dragon—Thomas Harris


Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past thirty some years, you’re well aware of the work of Thomas Harris. Red Dragon is the first of four books. Technically, the book is a thriller. We know the identity of the killer long before our erstwhile detective, Will Graham.

In the Hannibal Lector universe, this book occurs before the current television show, Hannibal. I know I’m a heretic, but to me, Mads Mikkelson is a much more chilling villain than Anthony Hopkins. But no one can match William Peterson’s portrayal of Agent Will Graham in Manhunter, the movie adaptation of Red Dragon.

This series is special for two reasons. First, Will Graham is a finely drawn protagonist, smart, yet plagued by personal demons that threaten to destroy him. Second, Hannibal Lector is a chilling villain, urbane, sophisticated, yet evil and ruthless. For budding writers, there can be no better models for developing characters.

To date, the series consists of four books: Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising. Red Dragon is the best of the bunch closely followed by The Silence of the Lamb. Unfortunately (in my estimation), the quality of the series falls off with the last two books. Harris has these four books over a span of 32 years. Let’s hope he’s got another one in the hopper.


What the heck is indirect dialogue and why should you care?

What the heck is indirect dialog and why should you care?

 Dialogue serves many purposes in fiction. It creates tension, deepens characterization and moves the plot forward. As authors, if we don’t supply enough dialog the reader wallows in narrative summary. Too much and she loses interest or gets lost in the verbiage.

In fiction, authors can convey speech with different levels of directness. Most often we use direct quotation that carries with it the sense of action or discovery:

 “Close, the brim is right, but it’s too dreary.” I tried it on, but it perched on top of my head like a kid’s beanie.  “Folks tell me I look like Randolph Scott.”

Harley took the hat and handed me another, this one in my size, a powder blue homburg. “Not Scott,” he said. “More like Burt Lancaster.”

“Oh God, please, not the fancy pants pirate,” I said in mock horror. “Imagine the Judge as Ojo.”

He laughed at that and I knew we’d be just fine. “More like Lancaster in The Killing,” he said, “anguished and resolute.”

In this example from my novel in progress, both Harkness and Harley are quoted directly. The dialog is vibrant and active.

Dialogue can also be indirect. We get the feel of the exchange without a direct quotation.

“Rumor has it that you used to be a spy.”

His eyes flitted right and left, finally they settled on me.  No, he hadn’t been a spy, but he had worked as an intelligence analyst for the government during the war. (Indirect Dialogue)

 “OSS?” He nodded. “Got any contacts there now?”

“Not that I can help it.”

Finally, dialog can be summarized, becoming part of the narrative.

 That’s what I wanted to hear. He wouldn’t have divided loyalties. “Things are going gunnysack around here.” I filled him in on the reports of flying saucers, the Brightside death and my thoughts on the FBI scouring the town for Commies. (Summary Dialogue)  “They may or may not be connected, but I’d like your help in working it all out.”

Here, the reader already knows about local sightings of flying saucers, the Brightside death and FBI agents scouting the county for communist sympathizers.  Repeating the entire conversation would bore the reader and as writers we don’t want to do that.

Not only do we have to study speech patterns and capture the rhythm, pacing and colloquialisms on the page, but we need to change up how we deliver dialog to the reader and give our dialogue vibrancy to hold the reader’s attention. These three techniques can help.


Love Medicine: Book Recommendation Friday

Some writers are best at short stories, some at novels. If you’ve got short stories in your genes, don’t despair, you’re not limited to literary journals. There is salvation for publishing longer works. Take a gander at Louise Erdrich’s gem, Love Medicine.


As I walked back from the rive that filled my brother’s boots, I could feel change coming onto me, riding me hard. I knew, from the first moment I got back to the house, I was not the same Lyman Lamartine who had left—that boy was gone. I saw my talent for money was useless with the deep problems. Worse than useless. If I bobbed to the surface, others went down.

For weeks after Henry Junior’s death, I still couldn’t take in the fact. I sat in his chair in front of the television, fit my hands over the raw spots where his had gripped, shut my eyes to get the sense. The old ones say a Chippewa won’t ever rest if he’s drowned, a rumor that both scared me and kept me up at night.

Louise Erdrich, The Tomahawk Factory

How can you not keep reading that? Love Medicine is the story of two Native American families, the Kashpaws and Lamartines. Erdrich and her partner, Michael Dorris, insisted that for marketing purposes, the book was a novel. But by my definition, Love Medicine is a collection of linked short stories. Linked stories can stand alone, but are tied together by setting, character or theme. This is a powerful collection, deep and nuanced, poetic and rich.

One advantage to linked short stories is the versatility of the technique. How else can you have multiple first person narrators in one book? Erdrich does it in her Native American series and it works.

The linked short stories collection is one of my favorite forms. It reflects the ethnic or native tradition of passing down familial lore through oral storytelling. Take a look at Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club or Jamaica Kincade’s Annie John. Stories are passed down from generation to generation. Even Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried follows that path. Imagine soldiers telling stories around the campfire before going out on patrol.

I’ve played with linked short stories, but a novel is in my blood, at least at this point in my writing career. Don’t let that stop you. Read Love Medicine and start writing a great series of stories.