What Can We Steal From Justin Lawrence Daugherty’s “The Boneyard”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Boneyard,” short story
Author: Justin Lawrence Daugherty (on Twitter @JDaugherty1081)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece debuted in the May 2013 issue of Knee-Jerk Magazine, a very lively literary journal.  You can read the piece here.

Bonuses:  Consider purchasing Mr. Daugherty’s short story collection, Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise.  Mr. Daugherty is the Managing Editor of Sundog Lit, a cool and lively journal in its own right.  Here is an interview in which Mr. Daugherty describes some of his philosophies about literature.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Non-Linear Structure

Aurelio, the “lizard-boy” is not in a very good place.  In search of his pregnant mother, longing to meet his future sister, “the beast” is being pursued by an angry mob of people wielding cleavers and shotguns and gripping “ball-bats and Molotov cocktails.”  Fortunately, the “translucent-skinned man” is there to help.  He kills many of the men in the mob and rescues the lizard-boy, saying, “without love, what are we?”

The first element of the story worth stealing is Mr. Daugherty’s structure.  The piece is explicitly non-linear and the changes in time are labeled before each section thus:


Three Days Earlier:

Two Days Earlier:

One Day Earlier:







The structure reminds me of what you see in a lot of television programs.  The teaser at the beginning of the program depicts the protagonist of the show in a sticky situation.  The next scene begins with a title on the screen: 72 HOURS EARLIER or the like.  What are some of the benefits of this kind of structure?

  • You get added kick out of the telegraphed climax.  We’re not sure in what context or with whom the translucent-skinned man will share the wish of love…but we want to find out.
  • You assure the audience that there is a big climax coming.  A program such as The Walking Dead will start out with a massive zombie buffet, then zip back in time to describe what led to that exciting scene.  Mr. Daugherty opts for an emotional punch over depicting a cool fight, of course.
  • In this specific case, Mr. Daugherty was able to draw an immediate tight connection between his two primary characters.  How?  The structure puts them so close together even though they were distant “three days earlier.”

Are there inherent risks when you use this kind of structure?  Sure.  In “The Boneyard,” we don’t learn too much about the mob itself and the “translucent-skinned man” remains a bit of a cipher, but that’s okay.  Zipping around in time allows Mr. Daugherty to put the emphasis where it belongs: on the lizard-boy.  (For more adventures in non-linear storytelling, check out my thoughts about Pulp Fiction.)

In a story that is this short, language often plays a more important role than usual.  When you read Mr. Daugherty’s piece, you might notice that he employs repetition to great effect.  Look in the “Two Days Earlier” section.  The author begins many of his sentences with “And,”.  In doing so, Mr. Daugherty evokes the kind of language that is used in mythology.  (To me, anyway.)  Aside from the lizard-boy, doesn’t this sound as though it belongs in a book like the Christian Bible?

And, the beast being alone, the mob gathered in the watchful outside, and they brought cleavers and shotguns, and they gripped ball-bats and Molotov cocktails. And, the mob gasped when they stumbled upon the boneyard–this refuse pile of the lizard-boy’s outgrown bones, the sloughed-off tokens of pain–and how their resolve was steeled. And, the lizard-boy, Aurelio, locked inside the trailer, trying to sleep if only for dreams of his sister, of the mother. And, instead, he dreamed of blood-soaked soil and the snap-cracking of men’s bones and the caving of skulls.

Further, Mr. Daugherty also repeats the “Now:” tag six times at the end of the story.  What’s the effect?  I think it adds to the suspense.  NOW the angry mob is being dispersed…NOW the lizard-boy is tasting freedom…NOW he is rededicated to finding and feeling love.

What Should We Steal?

  • Experiment with a non-linear structure.  Moving around in time makes it easy for you to cut the boring parts out of your story.
  • Employ repetition to enhance the timelessness and significance of the language you use.  Repeating phrases and ideas can slow down the reader and force him or her to live more deeply in your tale.

What Can We Steal From Day Keene’s Home is the Sailor?

Title of Work and its Form: Home is the Sailor, novel
Author: Day Keene
Date of Work: 1952
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book was republished by Hard Case Crime in 2005. You can also purchase vintage copies at fine secondhand booksellers.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing:

It’s hard to find books that are more exciting than those in the pulp fiction genre. These books are how people got their Law & Order fix before there was Law & Order. The deliciously lurid covers attract attention—an oil painting of a dangerous woman in love-rumpled clothes beckons you—and the characters and situations fulfill our primal need to experience crime and passion. Day Keene was a pulp writer who also wrote suspense radio shows. (You should check those out, too!) Home is the Sailor only takes place over a few days, but those days are very busy! Swede is a sailor just home from a long stretch at sea. He has $18,000 in his pocket and wants to go home to Montana and buy a farm and plant some roots. Unfortunately, he met Corliss, the owner of a tourist stop. Before long, he’s in love. Perpetually drunk, Swede doesn’t really think about why Corliss likes him. He is, however, perfectly willing to kill Jerry when Corliss claims he raped her. It should be very obvious to you that nothing and no one are as they seem in the novel.

Okay, here’s a confession. I read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles in grad school. I was into the second book when Tess, who was a delicate maiden, started nursing a baby. Instead of remaining in the narrative, I had a million questions. Can women normally nurse if they didn’t just have a baby? Where did the baby come from? It can’t be her baby…right? Whose baby is it?

Dear Reader, I had totally missed the Victorian rape scene in the first section of the book. (The sex, of course, resulted in the baby Tess was nursing.) I believe this is it. Sadly, Alec sexually assaults Tess in this excerpt:

He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.

Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around… But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? Where was the providence of her simple faith? …

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter.

As Tess’s own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: “It was to be.” There lay the pity of it.

Now that you’ve read it, am I really so crazy not to have caught what was going on? I wasn’t expecting fifteen pages of graphic description of what Alec did, but I needed a little something more. (Maybe this oversight is a reflection of my highly moral nature.)

Compare that to a naughty scene from Home is the Sailor:

Corliss’ eyes burned into mine. “I love you, Swede. Say you love me.”

“I love you.”

She bit my chest. “Then prove it,” she screamed at me.

“Prove it.”

I did, the hard rock ripping our flesh. We were mad. We had reason to be. We were Adam and Eve dressed in fog, escaping from fear into each other’s arms. And to hell with the fiery angel with the flaming sword. It was brutal. Elemental. Good. There was no right. There was no wrong. There was only Corliss and Swede.

When at last I rolled on my elbow and lay breathless, looking at her, Corliss lay still on her back in the moonlight, her hair a golden pillow, fog eddying over her like a transparent blanket. Her upper lip covered her teeth again. Her half-closed eyes were sullen. The future Mrs. Nelson, I thought, and I wished she had some clothes on.

So this scene is a LOT more graphic than Hardy’s. That much is clear. But look at the subtlety that Keene is employing. He could indeed have done a lot more to describe the lovers’ body parts and where they were going, but he didn’t. What I appreciate is that there’s no ambiguity here. I know that Corliss and Swede are “doing it” and Keene is giving me the interesting details on which I should focus. There’s a light touch here. Keene goes through the main event pretty fast, but lets us know when that part is over. After all, he points out that Swede “rolled on [his] elbow and lay breathless, looking at her.” What a nice detail; Keene treats us the reader like an adult by not shying away from the sex, but focuses more on the emotion and the relationship dynamics at work. There’s a meaningful emotional turn as the afterglow recedes; he confirms that he thinks of Corliss as more than just a plaything. He thinks of her as a wife and as a person deserving of dignity.

Another thing that separates the passage from simple pornography is the poetic touch Keene lends to the scene. Instead of making sex something that is all about the physical movement, Keene makes it into literature and gives us access to Swede’s relatively deep thought about the matter.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Don’t confuse your reader by needlessly softening scenes that contain sex or violence. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame Hardy for the way he described what happened to Tess. He was writing in a time in which writers were expected to put modesty and propriety above art. (It could be argued that modesty and propriety are enemies of art!) The point is that you can strike a balance between the gratuitous and the necessary.
  • Avoid clichés when describing scenes containing sex or violence. Fights and times of lovemaking are unique and meaningful in a character’s life. Therefore, you should endeavor to describe these scenes in as fresh a manner as you can. Keene didn’t say that Corliss’s hair “fell softly on her shoulders.” Can hair fall hard? Where else but on her shoulders? And we’ve heard that before. Instead, he describes her hair as “a golden pillow, fog eddying over her like a transparent blanket.” Pretty.

Fun link: Want to read more about the work?