At about the same time that I brought out Two Novellas, which is to say between the time I finished with Dorchester and the time I took up with Five Star, I worked on a few self-publishing projects.
One of those projects was a short story collection entitled Field Work, which I hoped would be a significant event in my writing career at that time and, I hoped, in general. Most of the stories in the collection had been previously published, and I took the initiative to bring them out in book form. This collection, along with Two Novellas, represents the mystery/noir mode which I had been working in for a few years as I continued to draw from my experiences in doing field work and living in tough conditions.
Here is a description from the back cover of the book:
This collection contains seven works of fiction ranging in length from short story to novella. The stories take place in rural California from 1964 to 1970, and they continue the mystery/noir style in which John D. Nesbitt has gained distinction. His portrayal of farm work, labor camps, auto courts, and small-town life is authentic and evocative. The world of these stories is born out of a vision of hard-edged realism, in which decent characters struggle with the circumstances of a hard-working life as well as with amoral drifters, opportunists, and criminals. The romance is spare, and the sex is not always pristine. But the main characters persist and survive. John D. Nesbitt’s work is consistently praised for its achievement in character, setting, prose style, and story line subtlety. As one reviewer wrote in Western American Literature, “Nesbitt is a true artist.” This collection includes the short story “At the End of the Orchard,” which won the Western Writers of America Spur Award for best short fiction in 2010.
I believe a bit of attention is due to this latter story by itself. “At the End of the Orchard” originally appeared in a magazine called Hardboiled. The story is a little under 10,000 words—not quite in the novella range but longer than most short stories. It is representative of one kind of fiction I had been working with at some length.
The setting of the story is rural California of the 1960’s, a setting I knew at first hand when I worked in the fruit fields when I was in high school and college. Having written an earlier collection of stories in that setting (Seasons in the Fields) and not having come close to using up my material, I wanted to write more stories about that world. While my first go-around with field work stories produced fiction that was, as I have styled it, realistic and bittersweet, this time around I have been working in a harder kind of realism. As in some of my traditional western fiction, I have felt at home in the hardboiled/noir area, and that tone seems to match up well with the field work experience. When I had finished “At the End of the Orchard” and was hoping to find a place for it, I could not wish for a better one than a magazine called Hardboiled.
This story is narrated by a fellow named Charlie Mullen, a fellow in his mid-twenties who is somewhat hard-bitten and cynical, as well he might be. While he is working on a peach-picking crew, he does what I have wanted a character of mine to do: he finds a body in the weeds at the end of the peach orchard. The body is that of a girl he has known in the labor camp, and because he has had a little to do with her, he becomes a suspect. The story goes from there, and although he has managed to clear himself by the end, the story does not have a rosy ending.
Since writing “At the End of the Orchard,” I worked on a few more stories in this same vein of rural hardboiled/noir. Together they became Field Work. Each one is narrated in first person by a new narrator, and each story seemed to be seeking its own length. The shortest is about 6000 words, and the longest is over 13,000. Two of the stories were accepted for publication in anthologies, one appeared in an e-zine, and one story followed “At the End of the Orchard” to find a place in Hardboiled. I had some success in that respect, but I did not find what anyone could call a market for fiction of this length. But that was all right with me. I wanted to write these stories because I felt I had some original subject matter and a legitimate perspective. What I was looking for as I wrote these pieces was voice, and tone, and a certain kind of truth. I do not know how I would measure my success in that area, but I will be glad I tried.
Field Work is available at Amazon.