Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Back to the 90s!

Posted: September 6, 2018 in writing
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My current project has a lot 1990s backstory.  I went to college and started my career in the nineties, so I know a thing or two about it, but it’s not really about the nineties.  It’s about the relationship between the protagonist and the woman who would become his wife and ultimately the reason he has left Oklahoma in the 2007 timeline.

Getting back into the 90s frame of mind is not exactly easy for me.  My world was very specific.  I spent half the nineties in the School of Music at the University of Oklahoma studying how to be a singer, how to direct a choir, and how to teach people how to sing.  I was not immersed in the times.  I was immersed in a centuries-old art form, studying Western music from the middle ages on.  I knew little of Notorious B.I.G. or fashion.  But I’m piecing it together.  I wasn’t entirely blind.  It was all happening around me.

My protagonist is a computer science major, but he joins the choir and his girlfriend is a voice student.  This allows me to write something a little closer to home even if it’s from an outsider perspective.  I’m a computer programmer myself even though I didn’t study it in college, but much of his college chapters centers around the music school and music majors.

I’m having to deal with language and culture and issues like sexuality in pre-millenial ways.  It’s hard to peal back 20 years of remarkable change in the world.  No cell phones.  The internet barely in place.  The 90s perspective on being gay, especially in regard to being black and gay…which one of my characters is.

I’m writing very steadily right now.  I’m getting in 2-3k a day mostly on breaks at my day job plus a few hours on the weekends.  I have topped 40k words today.  I’m drafting at the moment.  When I draft, I like to think of it like a graphic artist does a comic book.  He/she sketches out the frames.  No color or shading, less detail.  Rough.  There is very little color or style in the book so far.  I just want to tell the story and nail down as much as the dialogue and action as possible.  I’ll color it all in later.  I want a really tight, compelling story.  I can give it beauty and atmosphere and pathos on a second write.  I look very much forward to doing that once I have bones.

Not being a pro, there’s not really any kind of pressure to produce this.  I don’t even know if and when I will publish it.  I have two or three other projects lined up after this, and I might write or draft them before publishing anything.  At least, that’s one self-publishing strategy….to have something ready to go soon after the launch of a book to get readers hooked into my writing.

My readership is tiny right now.  I’ve been honing my craft over the last 15 years or so, waiting for the right time to produce a full-blown novel, and I’ve decided this is the time.  My kids are grown.  My career is settled.  I have more free time.  I have a better idea of how to write something potent and compelling.  I’ve got no place to go but up!

About ten years ago I wrote ten short parts of a web serial called Bay City Runaway.  Here’s a five chapter teaser.  It’s about an alcoholic who has left Oklahoma in the 2000s to live in San Francisco to get away from his old life and the demons that haunt him, and his entanglement with a seventeen-year-old runaway girl.  There is plenty of 90s background story as well.

Once every year or two I’ve gone back and reread this incomplete work and I found it to have some potential, but I could never figure out how to continue it.  Then a year ago, I sat down and wrote a sketch of what it could be if it were a novel and revised the existing writing into a form more suitable for a novel.  Then I put it away again and didn’t think about until I logged into Wattpad a few weeks ago and read some comments.  People had read my original incomplete serial and were asking me to write more, so I did.  I added about 1200 words.  It felt good.  It felt so good that I decided to write ten thousand more.

Now, I feel I have something to work with and the motivation to do it.  So I’ve taken most of it offline and have written about 25k words.  I think this will be my first full-length novel.  I self-published Whiff: A Novella on Amazon, which I’m now publishing as a serial to gain some readership, but I couldn’t get more than 32k out of it.  I believe Bay City Runaway will be more than twice that making it my first complete novel.

I’m writing at a pace of between 2000 and 3000 words a day, mainly on my lunch hour at my day job as a software engineer.  That’s a lot to expect in one hour or even in a day, and I’d be surprised if I could keep that up for long, but it’s very gratifying for now.

Don’t expect anything very soon.  I have a long way to go.  But it is a thrill to be writing again!



This would be his last church.  He had been retired for 14 years, but he had remained a part of the Presbytery’s life’s blood until the day he died; chairing committees, helping fledgling churches, helping struggling churches.  A man like Reverend Horace Glover could never really retire.

He was tireless in his duty, his love, for the church.  When he took us to Mount Petit Jean to camp on the Memorial Day after my third-grade year, it was the church that called him back for a funeral.  When I hit my first little league homerun, it was the church who needed him to chair an emergency session meeting.  When my mother first grew ill, it was the illness of the church that needed tending.  No, my father would never leave the church for anything or anyone, until this day, laid in a coffin in the back of a hearse laid in a coffin in the First Presbyterian Church of Peterson Oklahoma soon to be surrounded by all of those whom he had served and whose respect he had earned in his career of thirty-five years as a Presbyterian minister.

I would never be a son of Peterson.  I’d only ever been a visitor there.  My parents had moved there after I’d already left Arkansas to study journalism at Berkeley. I hadn’t been there since my mother’s funeral seven years before.  The town meant nothing to me.  It was merely the setting for the last phase of my parents’ life.

When I arrived at the church parking lot, my brothers Gabriel and Joseph were standing outside of the church next to the children’s playground.  Gabe, the youngest, was smoking a cigarette.  He was the first one to notice me.

“Here comes the biggest fucking commy reporter this side of East Jesus Nowhere,” he said, gesturing grandly toward me.

“That’s pretty big talk from a cross-eyed pussy,” I said, pointing out his lazy eye.

“Hey guys, cool it ok,” said Joe, practically whispering and lowering his arms into a shoosh position.

“Ease up, Joe, my dad just died,” I said, feigning grief.

“It’s about to start and I’ve signed us all up to be pallbearers along with Uncle John.”

“Uncle John, great,” said Gabe, rolling his eyes. “I swear to God that guy’s armpits haven’t seen the soft side of a deodorant stick since his pubes grew in.  It’s bad enough we got a dead guy stinking up the place.”

“Shut the fuck up, Gabe,” growled Joe.  Gabe never learned to shut his mouth, and Joe had spent the last thirty-three years trying to teach him.  “Look.  Here comes the hearse.  We’re on.”

Gabe extinguished his cigarette under his shoe.  I opened up the playground gate and we took a short cut passed the big toy, cedar chips crunching under our polished dress shoes.  By the time we arrived at the hearse, the funeral director and his sickly looking son were opening the back double doors.  Uncle John, a lean man with a gaunt, pointy face, was standing on the sidewalk with his hands clasped in front of him.  I’d never done this before and I wasn’t exactly sure what we were supposed to do at this point.

“Boys,” said the funeral director, softly and slowly, as if not to wake our father from his repose. “Let’s just step through this, ok? “  He was a fat, balding man of approximately 60 years of age and all of his movements and gestures had a certain swishy elegance to them. “Gabriel, you and Joe are going to take the front two handles and slide the coffin out a few feet.” Then he gestured to Joe and me. “Then Joseph, you and Mark are going to take the back two handles.  Grasp them firmly.”  He made an exaggerated gripping motion with both of his hands.  “We’ll open the door closest to the sanctuary and then you’re going to walk to the foyer and wait for my cue.  Are we all good here?  Are there any questions?”

“I’ve got one,” said Gabe, raising his hand. “What happens if we have to scratch our asses?  Do we take turns or do we scratch each other’s asses for them?”

The director let out a disappointed sigh, tilting his head a little bit to the left.  “You’ll just have to wait, I suppose,” he said, humorlessly.

The sight of my father’s coffin had a sobering effect on me.  Despite what had happened, he was still my father, and I still had feelings about his death, no matter how complicated they were.  He selected his own coffin, a shiny slate steel, but if he’d really had his way he’d have us chuck him into ground…ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  He intended for his body to be food for worms.  His soul, however, would be preserved, he’d said, by the grace of God.

It was not as heavy as I expected.  In the end, he was only half the man he’d once been.  His body had withered tremendously.  Not having seen him since Mom’s funeral, I hadn’t even recognized him at the viewing.  He had once been a giant to me.  And now as, I held his coffin, I could feel little of him inside.  He may as well have been bones at this point.

As we walked in from the summer heat, the air-conditioned hallway leading into the sanctuary cooled me like the damp wash cloths my mother used to press onto my hot forehead when I was feverish.  For nearly two weeks, it had been in triple digits there and in Little Rock, Arkansas, the city I called home.

We walked in step with each other for about twenty feet until we reached the narthex, which some churches call a foyer and which a contemporary non-denominational church might mundanely call a waiting room or a lobby.  The air was quiet and still except for the low, sustained tones of a pipe organ playing Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” behind the closed sanctuary doors.

“Hey,” Gabe whispered. “What’s our cue?  The guy said there would be a cue.”

Joe nodded at the funeral director who had taken his place by the door on the right aisle. We would look to him for some sort of signal, probably when he opened the door and nodded sanctimoniously at us.

The fragrance of lilies weighed heavily in the air.  Its sweetness turned my stomach.  These were the same flowers that were at my mother’s funeral.  They had piled them all around her coffin, that and roses of all colors; red, white, pink, and yellow. She’d chosen lilies because they reminded her of all the Easters we’d spent together as a family, which were few and far between since I’d left for college.  Gabe had said, “If you want to think of Easter, how about we pile up a bunch of fresh-baked Virginia hams around the coffin.”

Gabe’s face was solemn now.  His eyes were on the funeral director.  My hand was beginning to sweat, and I began to worry that I would lose my grip, but then the director opened the door and we were walking.

As we carried the casket down the aisle, the organist was playing “The Old Rugged Cross”, which was not my father’s favorite hymn.  It was one of those hymns that was just expected at funerals whether you liked it or not.  This was how we mourned our dead:  Old Rugged Cross, Softly and Tenderly, Amazing Grace, and In the Garden.   I would sing these songs then with the sense of duty only felt by the son of a preacher.

We placed the coffin on its stand and took our seats with the family.  The preacher was a former colleague of Dad’s, Jordan Shepherd.  I pondered the absurdity of a preacher named Jordan Shepherd.  It seemed like a preacher stage name which combined Jordan River and the Good Shepherd.  I sat between Joe and my Aunt Gloria who after a Thanksgiving meal one year, when we were alone in the den, told me she liked a man who looked good both coming and going.  “You have a nice tush, Mark,” she’d said.

“Umm, thanks.  That’s very kind of you to say,” I said, disturbed and not sure what else to say.  What do you say when your mother’s sister complements your ass?  Thanks?  You have great tits?”

“And now, let us prepare our hearts for prayer,” intoned the Reverend Shepherd at the podium.  As he began to pray my mind wandered.  I thought about how many times I’d heard my dad say the exact same phrase.  In the Lonegrove church, he would rise from his chair, which always seemed like a throne to me as a child.  He wore a black robe and whichever colorful stole he’d chosen that day and would step to the podium in the center of the chancel which was above the Lord’s Table.

You couldn’t tell when you were sitting in the congregation, but if you were sitting with the choir, you could see that he had a habit of rolling up onto the balls of his feet as he spoke.  With a voice filled with holy might he uttered phrases like “Let us turn our hearts to God” and “Lift up your hearts” to which we were to reply “We lift them up to the Lord.”  As a child, my favorite moment in the service was the benediction.  It came at the very end of the service.  It was the moment right before my brothers and I would run back to the house and breathe in the smell of a Sunday roast.  He would step down from the chancel, slowly and with purpose, and stop right in front of the Lord’s table where the cross and candles and offering plates, and once a month, the vessels for the Lord’s Supper lay, so that he was on an eye level with the standing congregation and raise is right hand saying “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  There was unseen power in his raised hand in these words.  They sealed the deal.  This was the closest thing to the act of a super hero that I ever saw as a child.

The church was a magic place for me, at least until I knew what my father truly was.  It was a place where promises were made with water, where communion with the living dead was made through grape juice in plastic shot glasses and with tiny biscuits.  Money was collected in plates and given to God supernaturally, so I’d believed.  The first of many disappointments for me was when I learned that the money that people put in the shiny brass plates went to pay the electric bill and my father’s salary.

The church could be a terrifying place for me, too.

I promised myself I wouldn’t cry for this man, but at the end of the service when Reverend Jordan Shepherd raised his right hand and spoke those powerful words, I felt something begin to break inside of me.  My heart had already been broken, but there was regret and anger and hatred that could be opened up fresh.  It welled up inside of me until I could no longer contain it and it dripped out of me in hot, wet tears.

And then I could hear her voice.  I knew it was just in my head, but she spoke to me this way when I was beginning to feel all alone in this world.  She said, “Honey bunch, you gotta forgive this man or it’s going to eat you up one day.  I’ve already forgiven him, and if you want an ounce of peace in your precious life, you’ve got to do the same.”  For a moment, I could feel her close to me, I could smell the perfume I’d bought for her on every one of our wedding anniversaries.  But it passed, as it always did.

After the service and the interment, my brothers and I headed for Nellie’s for a drink.  Gabe was quiet, as if he’d just been in a car wreck and hadn’t quite realized what had happened, and Joe was thoughtful.

“Dad was a lot of things, but –“ began Joe.

“Don’t.  Just don’t,” I interrupted.  “I can’t sit here and listen to you extol a sorry son of a bitch like the Reverend,” I said, brusquely and slamming the rest of my double shot of sweet Kentucky straight whiskey.

Then Gabe broke his silence and said, “I went back once, last year.  It’s still the most beautiful little town in Arkansas, but it’s still the same.  You can see it in people’s eyes.”

“I wouldn’t go back to that fucked up town if you paid me,” I said, motioning to the bartender for another one.

The bartender, a short balding man with tufts of salt and pepper hair growing out of his ears discreetly poured me another and I stared at it in angry silence.

Joe put his hand on my shoulder for a moment without saying anything.

“Mark.  I know that he hurt you and disappointed you, but this is a day for letting go.  This is a day to put it to rest, to put yourself at rest.  You’ll never be able to change who dad was.  You’ll never be able to change what he did to you.  Never.”

But I didn’t want to hear it.  He didn’t deserve to be forgiven for what he had done to me; to us.

Whiff was a DELIGHT! An easy read, yet so poignant. A simple story that draws you into “Jim’s world”, where scent is EVERYTHING. Enjoyed every minute of this book. What a great break from reality. Can’t wait for David Hill Burns next novel.

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Future Projects

Posted: February 27, 2017 in writing
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Now that Whiff is off the ground, I’m turning my focus to other projects.  I have choices to make.  I have 50k words on a novel called Fly By Night which I set aside a number of years ago.

Daniel is a 30-something computer programmer whose life has so far been a series of fortunate events. His friends and family consider him to be lucky. To them, he just seems to sail through life. In fact, his nickname is “Lucky”. Well, Daniel’s luck is beginning to run out. His marriage is falling apart. His career is stalling. He can’t deal with his two children. He feels alone and depressed. Daniel is losing his way…that is, until he encounters a guide. This guide isn’t a therapist, a pastor, or a guru. In fact, Daniel’s not even sure if it is human. And now, Daniel has a night job and a new direction.

I have 12k of a novel written called Bay City Runaway

Brian is a lonely drunk living in San Fransisco escaping a painful past.  He gets entangled with a teenage runaway named Amy.  The two runaways make it through with each other’s help

And I have an outline for a journalist mystery set in the south.

A reporter discovers the truth about his southern home town when he uncovers its dark secret

Fly By Night has problems to be solved before I can continue.  The other two are in good shape for excellent novels.  I’ll be choosing one soon for my next project.  Wish me luck!


Review by Ay Shing

Posted: February 23, 2017 in writing
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I love this story! Very satisfying to read, to grow and develop with the main character Jim. It was an alternate reality to feel/smell the world through Jim’s nose. I enjoyed it so much I shared the story with my family after reading it. I felt like he was a friend, real and lively. It was easy to laugh and cry with him. Hm. I wonder what he smell like. haha. It helps to see and sense the world from a different perspective and be more empathetic. – Ay Shing

Early Reviews for Whiff

Posted: February 22, 2017 in writing
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I inhaled it! Pun intended. Seriously, I could not put this down. Clever, poignant, evocative, and sweet love story. Laden with nostalgia without slapping you in the face with it. Lots going on under the surface. Very satisfying. ~ Paul Burns

Quirky and entertaining, this novella is a fast and fun ride. Author David Hill Burns kept me wondering about the fate of the socially awkward and smell-obsessed narrator. A faint “Bates Motel” tang in the air gave me just the right amount of goosebumps.  ~ Sylvia Ryan


When I wrote Whiff, I only had my experiences with smell to draw on.  Jim was a fantasy character in my mind.  Jim’s heightened sense of smell seems beyond what is humanly possible.  He describes smell of dying like this:

It is the subtlest of odors, death—not unlike the smell from when one falls from lucidness into the first moments of dreaming—but perhaps a touch sweeter.

He describes Marie like this:

rain on early spring birch leaves, the filament of an orchid, and the slightest hint of cardamom

To be honest, I don’t even know if the filament of an orchid has a scent. In fact, I chose it because to smell it, you’d have to get passed the predominant smell of an orchid.   I wanted to convey that Jim is a savant of the highest order;  capable of detecting beauty beyond the reach of a normal person, or perhaps any person at all.  But maybe Jim is less of a fantasy than I originally thought.  It is likely that Jim is a hyperosmiac.  Wikipedia defines

Hyperosmia is an increased olfactory acuity (heightened sense of smell), usually caused by a lower threshold for odor. This perceptual disorder arises when there is an abnormally increased signal at any point between the olfactory receptors and the olfactory cortex.

This condition that Jim has is real science.  He was likely born with this condition, and it fits even better than I’d planned.  There’s neurology involved here.

What Is that Smell by Daniel J. Cameron, MD, MPH

Research studies examining impaired or heightened sense of smell have been focused primarily on patients suffering from neurological disorders, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Jim also seems to be on the autism spectrum.  His inability to recognize social cues and intense discomfort with communicating with the people around him would put him into the category of Asperger’s which is very much a neurological disorder.  It fits so beautifully and scientifically that Jim might have a heightened sense of smell and an obsessiveness associated with that of an autistic.

But it’s more than just a heightened sense of smell.  Jim is a chronic nostalgiac.  From an early age, his strong association with pleasure and smell conditioned him to have a dependency on smell in order to experience pleasure in the present .  It’s not enough to smell something that you’ve smelled before, there must be conditioning in order to have the kinds of responses Jim has.

How Smell Works by Sarah Dowdey

The olfactory bulb has intimate access to the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. Despite the tight wiring, however, smells would not trigger memories if it weren’t for conditioned responses. When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory — associating the smell of chlorine with summers at the poolor lilies with a funeral. When you encounter the smell again, the link is already there, ready to elicit a memory or a mood. Chlorine might call up a specific pool-related memory or simply make you feel content. Lilies might agitate you without your knowing why. This is part of the reason why not everyone likes the same smells.

Although he’s a product of my imagination, there could be a real Jim Bronson out there.  But don’t just wait to find him.  Read about him in Whiff:   A Novella

barneswilson_pr2I’ve been asked if my book Whiff is autobiographical.  The lead character, Jim Bronson, is a man whose primary way of experiencing the world is through scent.  He tries to resurrect moments, places, and people in his life by “collecting” smells.  It’s kind of creepy on the face, and so I suspect people wonder if I’m creepy in that way as well!

I want to assure you that I am not Jim Bronson!  But I will say that it is based on an experience I had as a child.  When I was four, we moved from Austin, Texas to Lonoke, Arkansas.  On the way out of town, my mother took my twin and I to the post office for a change of address.  While we waited, there was a little girl there.  I became smitten with her in my own little four-year-old way!  At some point after we arrived in Lonoke, we stopped at the post office again.  When we got to the counter, the smell was identical to the one in Texas.  I got a rush of butterflies in my stomach.  For awhile, every time we went, I got the same feelings.  Even at four years old, I was a lovesick romantic!

Since then, I’ve been very aware of smell in my environment and the way it affects me;  the memories they invoke.

In How Smell Works,Sarah Dowdy writes

A smell can bring on a flood of memories, influence people’s moods and even affect their work performance. Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain,” smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.

After my grandfather’s funeral, we gathered at my aunt’s house for food and comfort.  It was a house that my grandmother had never entered.  As I walked passed the stairs, I got a whiff of something so familiar.  It was my grandmother’s scent.  Chanel #5, Spearmint, cigarette, lipstick, and her own unique scent signature.  I followed it up the stairs half expecting to see a ghost.  Then it disappeared.  I knew is was her.  I wasn’t sure how, but I knew it was her.  She was so present.  For a moment, she was resurrected.

Our olfactory memory is so powerful, the most powerful, that something that is gone or far away can be brought back into being in our minds.  Smell is as intimate a contact we can have with a person, place, time, or thing.  It’s like a time machine.  We are transported immediately when we smell that recipe for cookies that mother used to make.  We smell peanuts and beer and we’re at the ballgame with our grandfather.  We smell the clothes of someone who is not in our lives at the moment or forever and we can feel them close.  We smell fur tree, scotch tape, wrapping paper, wood burning fire, clove, orange, newspaper, coffee and we are seven again on Christmas morning.


So, no I’m not Jim Bronson, but we can all relate to this character in some way.  We’ve all collected smells.  We comfort ourselves with the fragrances that mean something to us.  The difference for Jim, though, is that it his way of life.  He lives in a fog of nostalgia that keeps him from having meaningful relationships in the present day, and nostalgia is a kind of grief.  I’ve done it before.  I’ve tried to recreate a moment with aroma.  It works in a sense, but there really is no resurrecting a moment.  So treasure the moments you have.