Nick Kolakowski on Growing a Short Story into a Big Novel

Nick Kolakowski

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short story titled “A Nice Pair of Guns.” It focused on an unnamed narrator, an Idaho bounty hunter, as he attempted to retrieve a pair of stolen AR-15s from some very bad people. Along the way, he received help from his sister, a temperamental arms dealer with her own motives. The story ran in one of the last issues of Thuglit, a magazine of hardboiled fiction, and readers seemed to respond well to it.

Under ordinary circumstances, that might have been the end of it. As a crime-fiction writer, you write some stories that you love, and maybe some that don’t end up as perfect as you’d like; but no matter how you feel about them, once they’re printed, that’s generally the end of it.

But this short story was different.

Maybe it was the narrator’s voice, which was a little bit more earnest than most of my characters; here was a hard-driving man, anxious to make up for past mistakes and do right by his family. Maybe it was the sister, Frankie, a sarcastic burnout totally fine with breaking bad, as long as that breakage translated into a lot of profit. Or maybe it was Frankie’s assistant, a man in a rubber chimpanzee mask who knew his way around a rocket launcher.

In any case, I couldn’t stop thinking about those characters. What happened to them after the short story ended? What if the events in that story were just prologue, a harbinger of something very big and bad? I had never transformed a short story into a novel before, and I was worried about extending these characters’ lives from 10 to 200-plus pages. What if they couldn’t support a narrative that big?

From my experience writing other novels, I knew that if I surrounded my protagonists with a rich-enough milieu, they could thrive. The next time I went out to Idaho, where my wife’s family lives, I began taking copious notes. I was scouting locations, pulling information for scenes. One night, we went to a truck pull, where monster machines attempt to yank a heavy weight down a dirt track as far as possible; as soon as I saw the vehicles belching smoke, the all-American pageantry, the colorful characters working the engines, I knew I had to include it as a major set-piece. On a more thematic level, I wanted to touch on the tension between the state’s longtime residents and the rich out-of-staters who come in and build enormous homes; I found a lot of real-life examples of that, too.

In other words, I wanted to make the state a character, too. And once I had that, and my characters, and the plot, I had more than enough material for a novel. (I make it sound like a pretty straightforward process, but the reality was a lot of thinking, and false starts, until I pulled all the right elements together.)

The end result is Boise Longpig Hunting Club, which combines some big themes with some big action. I even got to set a gunfight in a creepy clown hotel, which is a (fictional) setting I’ve wanted to use for years. My little short story is all grown up.

Nick Kolakowski’s writing has appeared in Shotgun Honey, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Thuglit, The North American Review, Spinetingler Magazine, Plots with Guns, and various anthologies. He lives and writes in New York City.

Nick’s new thriller, Boise Longpig Hunting Club, hits bookstores on August 13th.