Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

The potent opening of “Haunting Olivia” by Karen Russell

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Sep• 05•19

The weather is warm these days, but bearable and I’ve got a sprinklers running. My tomatoes are ripening so fast I need to check them every morning. Which isn’t that easy because one bed is an untidy jungle of branches, no matter how often I trim suckers.  I love the smell of tomato leaves on my hands, though the scent is hard to describe.  My harvest overfloweth, so I’ll have plenty to give away.

If you don’t have a lot of time for reading because you’re so busy writing, one thing you can always do is read and analyze story openings and ask yourself why the opening works or doesn’t. Here’s one worth studying from the talented Karen Russell, Haunting Olivia.

My brother Wallow has been kicking around Gannon’s Boat Graveyard for more than an hour, too embarrassed to admit that he doesn’t see any ghosts. Instead, he slaps at the ocean with jilted fury. Curse words come piping out of his snorkel. He keeps  pausing to adjust the diabolical goggles.

The diabolical goggles are designed for little girls. They are pink with a floral snorkel attached to the side. They have scratchproof lenses and an adjustable band. Wallow says we are going to use them to find our dead sister, Olivia. 

My brother and I have been taking midnight scavenging trips to Gannon’s all summer long. It’s a watery junkyard, a place where people pay to abandon their boats. Gannon, the grizzled, tattooed undertaker, tows wrecked ships into his marina. Battered sailboats and listing skiffs, yachts with stupid names–Knot at Work and Sail-la-vie–the paint peeling from their puns. They sink beneath the water in slow increments, covered with rot and barnacles. Their masts jut out at weird angles. The marina is an open, easy grave to rob. We ride our bikes along the rock wall, coasting quietly past Gannon’s tin shack, and hop off at the derelict pier. Then we creep down to the ladder, jump onto the nearest boat, and loot.   

I’m in (and practically swatting at mosquitoes),  how about you?

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