Don Corcoran is one of the authors in the soon-to-be released urban fantasy anthology, Urban Harvest: Tales of the Paranormal in New York City, and I’m very happy to have him featured on my blog for an interview.
What do you like about writing in the paranormal genre?
The paranormal brings three things to my writing: Suspense, Wonder, and The Creep. Supernatural elements bring a level of uncertainty to the page. The idea that a protagonist can be threatened indirectly and must approach problems through the same murky process heightens the readers anxiety. Often the reader hasn’t internalized the rules of engagement making plot development and character interactions more of a mystery (without making the piece a stone cold whodunit). That mystery delivers suspense – what is the bad guy going to do and will the white hat, superior in many ways, be able to see it coming.
That mystery is the source of wonder. I am not a person that likes writing about fireballs and flying vampires. I like my fantasy to be subtle and in the background. I like my paranormal to incite curiosity and illicit the reader to want to learn more, a forever moving target, like dark spots in your vision to chase.
It’s the ever-present, background weirdness that brings shivers to ones spine. When the reader starts to think about what’s going on and they think they’ve got it or they start to understand the implications and insert themselves into the narrative that the creep settles in. It’s not quite horror. It’s not disgust one gets from gore or the darkness revealed in a characters soul, rather it’s the inevitable. The slow crawling doom you see the characters approaching despite their best intentions.
Sure, some of this can be maintained through mundane means but there’s a balance that further enhances the effect of paranormal elements.
What prompted you to write this story?
I write supernatural westerns. I saw the submission call for the anthology and thought about some of the material that gets lost in the research process of my other work. I recently read A Passionate Girl, by Thomas Flemming, watched Copper, and had been doing a lot of research on New York during the Civil War. I am writing novels set at the beginning of the war in New Orleans. There’s just not an opportunity to explore religious immigration and the roles of slavery in Manhattan in the mid-1800s in my books, right now. I have nowhere to talk about Tammany Hall, political corruption, and the gangs of Five Points. Writing short stories allows me to not only express the fascinating details of those spaces but also lets me create a more complete picture of the setting without diluting the novels.
What other things have you written/are you writing?
I am currently writing a Voodoo Western Dime novel series. It follows the exploits of a black union soldier behind enemy lines desperately trying to free his mother from slavery. In the process he’s drawn into the politics of voodoo and discovering his supernatural inheritance.
That’s tricky since my plots are character driven. So my writing follows a very narrow path and leads to a focused point but that end point is developed by understanding what the goals of the characters are, what are their obstacles, and how they will change over time. A story begins by recognizing a character’s deficiencies and it ends in the afterglow of those changes
It’s semi-organic. I start by doing a character study of each main character, what they want and where they are going. Then I have a solid idea of where the story will go and what the whole things looks like from the top down. Once I have those general ideas then I plot out the story scene by scene every 10,000 to 15,000 words. I usually use a three scene/three act scene structure to think about the rise and fall of drama.
Obviously, with a short story I plot out the whole thing. With the story for this anthology I went through two first drafts, reorganizing the focus of the story and rethinking where I want it to go. With something so small I find that much easier to do.
When and how did you first become interested in writing?
My sister asked me if I’ve always been writing and I recalled that I write my first novella when I was thirteen, hand written on loose-leaf. I’ve always been a gaming and movie nerd. Have always been way over-educated. Writing allows me to express those interests and draw out the narratives in my head. Nothing gets me going to write than seeing something done poorly. It was inadequacies (or at least intriguing variations) in books, films, comics, and games that inspired me to rethink a fictional space. It was great authors like Lamour, Bradbury, and Eco that gave me the bar to set my craft to.
What’s your writing schedule? Do you have a favorite place to write?
I wish there was a “schedule.” I have opportunity to write daily, thank goodness. I drop my daughter off at daycare, sometimes jog to get the blood flowing, sit at a café to get in about four pages of hand-written journaling, then sit at my desk and write to a dedicated playlist. That said, I usually can get a short story done in a day and a novel’s first draft in a month.
I am doing research on the Industrial Revolution for my next series. There is a strong possibility that the Voodoo Western series will extend to two more trilogies after this one. Each book I write is usually accompanied with one or two short stories exploring other characters and spaces in the periphery of the novels. All of my books have a social message, putting a finer point on various social issues. The Voodoo Western is all about race and religion. The new series will be about living wages and the loss of craftsmanship.
The following is a short excerpt from Don’s story in Urban Harvest.
An Elegant Cross
“Let’s begin. I can’t wait for William.”
Smitty held bottles and burning incense for Mama’Jo as she weaved her conjure. He sang, as he had so many times before, the song never quite escaping the back of his throat. Mama’Jo took a long draught of rum, finishing it by pouring the rest of the bottle over her head. Smitty danced in tight circles around the shop, the lavender smoke of the sage wafting in lines until it filled the small room with haze.
The door opened. Smitty and Mama’Jo stopped and stood stock still. The mambo’s back was to the door. Smitty stepped closer, relieved to see it was William. He brought the new man’s saddle bags.
William said nothing, but emptied their contents. Smitty and William jumped back at the sound of a rattle and the appearance of a snake among Murphy’s belongings.
Mama’Jo’s voice was low, “Smart boy,” she said using her lips, her lungs. Mama’Jo reached down and picked up the dead rattler. “Perfect.”
The mambo slid about the tiled floor holding the serpent up high.
William found a rosary, a bull-sack pouch filled with tobacco, and a wooden comb. He put the rosary around Mama’Jo’s neck and began to recite a prayer. He emptied the pouch, mixed a few crushed herbs together, and poured piss from a bottle into the mixture. Smitty drew an elaborate pattern on mirrors with soap.
Mama’Jo snapped one of the serpent’s fangs and added it to William’s poultice. She began to dance. William stripped the comb of errant hairs and added it to the pouches contents. Carefully he put the pouch in Murphy’s mouth.
The mambo began to chant in Creole, calling her snake god, all the while shaking the rattle.
At the ceremony’s crescendo she opened Murphy’s mouth. The pouch was gone.
“It’s okay, young buck,” she whispered in his ear. “I got you.”
When they were done, Smitty and William cleaned up. Mama’Jo sang to the dead serpent in soft tones, devoid of the furrowed brow and set jaw that had her earlier.
“This is a good sign, William.” She smiled at the snake. “Is everything in order?”
To read the rest of Don’s story, check out Urban Harvest: Tales of the Paranormal in New York City, available from Amazon this Sunday!