The Nitty Gritty
by Bob Ford, author/contributor to Lost Highways
It’s safe to say most of us are acquainted with teachers, accountants, engineers and a normal assortment of people in our lives. It makes day-to-day acceptable and comfortable. Nothing wrong with that.
Lots of characters hold those posts in fiction and the old adage write what you know comes to mind because I’m positive the number of novels where the protagonist happens to be a writer is staggeringly high. It’s much easier to write characters on familiar mental ground.
For me, I rarely do that. It’s not because I think these character types are boring—it’s up to the writer to make the story interesting—but I’ve always been drawn to the characters living in the shadows of society. The overlooked and often ignored.
Bartenders. Pawnshop dealers. Bikers. Garbage collectors. Prostitutes. Grifters. Drug dealers. Thieves. The so-called underbelly. The nitty gritty people in society that balance out the goody-two-shoes.
What stories does the bartender therapist hear? When people get desperate enough, what will they bring to the pawnshop? What pulls on a hardcore biker’s heartstrings? When the next-door neighbor puts their trash out to be picked up, what do the garbage collectors find?
Real life with a twist—that’s the kind of stories I’m interested in telling to my readers. I’ve researched biker culture, con men, drug dealer and addict lifestyles, how to break into a high-security prison (how an unmarked sedan didn’t show up at my house when I researched my novel The Compound is beyond me), and various forms of anarchy. A main character in my story Mr. Hugsy in Lost Highways: Dark Fiction from the Road, is a con-man who has done some time in prison. But he’s also a father and finds out his son might be able to finally let him get to Easy Street in life. It’s unclear if he loves his son because he’s his son, or because of what he can get out of him in life. But it also shows the qualities he has developed from living that type of life.
I think because most of us live a normal day-to-day existence, there’s a fascination with the unknown fringe and if you write the character well enough, the reader will most definitely be drawn in. It’s like going to a bar and seeing the incredibly sexy guy or girl with too many rings and a lot of tattoos. You damn well know they’re going to be a good time but you’re not sure if you’re going to end up in jail before the night is through. There’s a certain twisted thrill to that.
The thing is, I still have to make these characters human. They’re flawed in many ways, but I have to make them believable. If the reader loves or hates the character, I’ve done my job. Either way, I have to make the reader care about the eventual hell I’m going to put them through in my story or cheer when they eventually fail.
Most writers are a bit introverted unless they’re at a convention. Away from the crowd of familiar faces and kindred spirits, writers often pull away from the public and keep to themselves. I know several writers who wouldn’t dare tell their coworkers they write horror, for fear of being looked at as some sort of weirdo serial killer.
I’d probably be in that same camp, except for years I ran my own advertising agency and was forced to go to hundreds of networking events and speaking engagements. Thousands of times, I’ve introduced myself to strangers and engaged them in conversation so I could make business contacts. That rapidly squelched any sort of introverted tendencies (for the most part) I may have in speaking with people I don’t know. I became a chameleon, able to speak as fluently with a CEO as well as the cleaning crew at the end of the event. Doesn’t matter to me. I’ve never looked down on anyone because of his or her job or financial status. I couldn’t care less. It’s a selfish thing, but I want their stories to keep in the scrapbook of my mind.
It has become standard practice for me when I’m at a pub or on vacation, speaking with someone new, to ask the question “What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?”
People love talking about themselves and this question has done wonders for me in terms of story fodder. A bartender told me a lone woman came into his bar and ordered a shot of tequila with training wheels. He poured the shot of tequila, and brought the saltshaker and the slice of lime.
The lady thanked him and put a $10 bill on the bar. She licked her arm and poured a bit of salt on it, then proceeded to snort the salt, threw back the shot, and squeezed the lime wedge into her open eyes. Didn’t say another word and walked out.
Months ago, I was at a bar and found myself talking to a garbage man, who told me there had been a drug smuggling ring for about six months in a very upscale condominium neighborhood only a few miles from me. Every trash collection day, the residents who wanted to buy drugs would tape an envelope of cash to the underside of their garbage can lids, and then drag it out to the curb.
When the garbage collectors got there, they would dump the garbage, take the cash, and replace it with a bag of drugs taped to the lid. They would drag it back to the curb and go on with their day.
I was absolutely enthralled.
I never would have heard these stories had I not spoken up and asked the question. As writers, we observe and report. Of course, we wrap that report in pretty metaphors and put our own imaginative twist on things.
I’ve always been drawn to learn more about that side of life and inspired to write stories that live there. My readers seem to like it and as long as they’re happy, I’m happy. And I’ll keep digging in that gray area of society as long as I can.
About Robert Ford:
Robert Ford fills his days handling marketing and design projects and considering ripping the phone lines from the wall. He is author of the novel The Compound, the novellas Samson and Denial, Ring of Fire, and The Last Firefly of Summer, and has a collection of his short fiction The God Beneath my Garden. He can confirm the grass really is greener on the other side, but it’s only because of the bodies buried there.
Praise for Lost Highways –
“Lost Highways is a great collection of stories. The emotions in them don’t feel cheesy or hackneyed. They feel real and in many cases are raw.” – Sci-Fi and Scary
“Editor D. Alexander Ward has brought together some fantastic pieces of horror fiction to craft a deeply enjoyable and often incredibly haunting anthology based around the theme of travelling along the highways and byways of the world. Another brilliant anthology from Crystal Lake Publishing, Lost Highways: Dark Fictions From The Road is a title that the publisher, editor, illustrators and authors should be extremely proud to be involved in, and deserves to be on the shelf of every horror fan. There are some truly brilliant stories in this anthology, along with stunning internal illustrations to accompany them, and it’s a credit to the publisher that they’ve yet again published such a high-quality title.” -Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Reviews
“This is an amazing collection of stories each with its own unique voice and feel and no two stories are alike. It’s a rollercoaster of a read with lots of cool tales and very few duds. This is an amazing collection of stories each with its own unique voice and feel and no two stories are alike. It’s a rollercoaster of a read with lots of cool tales and very few duds.” – HorrorTalk
“LOST HIGHWAYS rates five big stars glowing like those huge illuminated signs beckoning from the roadside. Gas, Eats, and Fun between the sheets! All available for a price. This is a GREAT collection to read while travelling or when you can’t and wish you were, like me.” – HellNotes
Introduction by Brian Keene
doungjai gam & Ed Kurtz — “Crossroads of Opportunity”
Matt Hayward — “Where the Wild Winds Blow”
Joe R. Lansdale — “Not from Detroit”
Kristi DeMeester — “A Life That is Not Mine”
Robert Ford — “Mr. Hugsy”
Lisa Kröger — “Swamp Dog”
Orrin Grey — “No Exit”
Michael Bailey — “The Long White Line”
Kelli Owen — “Jim’s Meats”
Bracken MacLeod — “Back Seat”
Jess Landry — “The Heart Stops at the End of Laurel Lane”
Jonathan Janz — “Titan, Tyger”
Nick Kolakowski — “Your Pound of Flesh”
Richard Thomas — “Requital”
Damien Angelica Walters — “That Pilgrims’ Hands Do Touch”
Cullen Bunn — “Outrunning the End”
Christopher Buehlman — “Motel Nine”
Rachel Autumn Deering — “Dew Upon the Wing”
Josh Malerman — “Room 4 at the Haymaker”
Rio Youers — “The Widow”
About the Editor
D. Alexander Ward is an author and editor of horror and dark fiction.
Both his Gothic thriller, Beneath Ash & Bone, and his Southern-flavored action-horror, Blood Savages, are available from Necro Publications and Bedlam Press wherever books are sold.
As an editor, he co-edited the acclaimed and Bram Stoker Award-nominated GUTTED: Beautiful Horror Stories. He also co-edited the Lovecraftian horror anthologies, Shadows Over Main Street, Volumes 1 and 2.
Along with his family and the haints in the woods, he lives outside of Richmond near the farm where he grew up in what used to be rural Virginia, where his love for the people, passions, and folklore of the South was nurtured. There, he spends his nights penning and collecting tales of the dark, strange and fantastic.
Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/DAlexWard) and Twitter (@DAlexWard).