Buried Nitrogen: Carving a Villain from an Old Oak Tree

By Sandra Barnidge

I happen to live in a historic neighborhood in Alabama known for charming Craftsman-style homes and soaring oak trees. When we moved into our house, the inspector said the canopy of three particularly majestic oaks above us would “cause problems” over time, but we waved off the warning, unconcerned, too in love with the trees to think they could ever hurt us.

Yet like any good herald, the inspector’s warning soon came true. Multiple big branches hit the roof every time the wind rustled, taking out chunks of gutters, denting the roof ridge, and punching a hole above the porch at various times in only three years. One morning last fall, I found myself looking up at the biggest of the oaks and felt for the first time a sense of foreboding rather than awe. I was becoming afraid of it.

We called an arborist. Three, in fact. Two recommended removing the biggest oak as soon as possible. One of its major limbs had a rot cavity as long as I am tall, and the top of its central trunk was becoming a mushroom colony. The primary culprit wasn’t disease or pests, merely time. Willow oaks in urban areas have a general lifespan of a century, and we assume ours was planted as a sapling around the same time our house was built in 1930.

However, the third arborist suggested we could buy a few more years with a heavy prune and some expensive fertilizer in the spring. Time was coming for it no matter what, he said. But we could help it survive a little longer, on borrowed time—despite time, to spite time, that universal villain. We said yes, please, thank you, how much.


I’m new to writing about villains. My work usually deals with the interior struggles of complicated women, and the main characters in my stories tend to do both good and bad things—they’re the Midwestern working-class female equivalents of David Joy’s Appalachian male heroes/anti-heroes. In my novel manuscripts in particular, this tendency has prompted commentary from reviewers and editors that my protagonists are not always “likeable enough to root for.”

I’ve spent far too much time already trying to intellectualize why this kind of feedback is problematic. This year, I’m finally ready to let it go, to move forward and try something different before knocking on New York’s five big doors again. This time, I’m going to write against my nature, against my instinct to hold up a single character’s psyche like a prism and disperse all that concentrated sunlight into a coherent, if not always pretty, pattern on the wall/page. Instead, now, I’m going to write a mystery novel about a simpler, “more likeable” woman who faces off against an unabashedly awful villain.

One of them will wind up murdered in a local park. A poisonous plant of some kind may be involved. Somehow, maybe, it’ll be kind of funny?

My inspiration for this plant-related murder mystery is rooted in good news: we’ve saved our neighborhood park from the clutches of a private developer! It took six long, fraught months of public sparring with the city council, but it’s finally over. In a way, time became a quiet hero in the fight to save the park, rather than an enemy. When the news of the park’s “imminent” sale first broke last summer, the clock felt oppressive, like things behind the scenes were moving too fast for us to stop, to combat. But week by week, we keep up the drumbeat of dissent, and in the end, the council’s plan to sell the park timed out.

“Time, which sees all things, has found you out,” whispers Eudora Welty. “The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves, they find their own order … the continuous thread of revelation.”

The Northport Park is saved, yet the broader villainy of what put the park at risk in the first place remains. And that villain is more complicated, a prism of many sides, each made of hard yet ultimately breakable glass. The Development Villain is decidedly unlikeable, but also perhaps unexpectedly sympathetic. His origin story lies in the decent (though far from noble) intentions of complicated people who want American cities to grow and become better places—while making a nice stack of bucks for themselves, of course. The villainy comes when those intentions are pitted against the wellbeing of the people and other living species who will be most directly affected by whatever form that new growth takes.  

I know, I know—that villain is far too complicated for the kind of breezy page-turner I’m aiming to write this year. I’ll need to channel the sprawling, cosmic spirit of The Development Villain into one man, one character with a name and a backstory and a fill-in-the-blank #goal, with a satisfying arc that will ultimately bring him to heel. This poor, unfortunate character will have to carry the full weight of his villainy in every scene in which he appears. He can occasionally elicit pity, sure, but never real sympathy. He needs to be a reduction, a concentration, a distillation of every bit of rage and frustration and sometimes even fear that I experienced while wrestling with his real-life inspiration this past year.

Put another way, it’s starting to feel like the way to make a workable fictional villain out of a sprawling, abstract concept is to prune away the extra limbs of real-life narrative, to let go of excess weight while carefully preserving an overall shape that feels familiar to a relatable truth. Smooth edges left, nothing ragged, nothing unresolved. Simple motivations that lead to cause-and-effect sequences on the page. No dangling doubts or misgivings.

Such certainty is, most certainly, the biggest fiction any writer can ever possibly produce.

Villain crafting is no small challenge—I can feel it already as I start sketching out ways to bring one into being on the page. The stakes feel inordinately high, since a good villain is so important in the crime/murder/thriller genres. To be honest, I haven’t been this nervous about embarking on a new project since my first-ever novel manuscript several years ago, the one I wrote after quitting a full-time job and moving across an ocean to a place where I didn’t speak the language, just to give myself time to focus.

Eudora, again: “How can you go out on a limb if you do not know your own tree? No art ever came out of not risking your neck. And risk—experiment—is a considerable part of the joy of doing.”

Perhaps it was always just a matter of time before I made my way into mystery writing. Perhaps I’ve just been waiting and practicing all these years until it was time for me to witness first-hand the sort of complex, real-life villainy that my particular kind of storytelling mind is capable of transforming into something specific and violent on the page.  

And that transformation starts with a character carved metaphorically from the rotted cutting of an elderly willow oak, beset and beleaguered by the pressures and pollution of urban life. A character shaped around an unhealed wound, a once-good friend who turns menacing due to forces mostly beyond his control. A powerful pillar of his neighborhood who must, eventually, be brought down before he harms the innocent little kids growing up in his shadow.

The next question, I suppose, is whether my new story’s hero will be up to the task.

Read more of Sandra’s work.

author Sandra K. Barnidge
Sandra Barnidge

Sandra Barnidge is an Alabama-based writer with a passion for small towns and overlooked places. Her fiction leans speculative and has appeared in Barren, Nimrod, The Fiddlehead, Reckon Review, Reservoir Ridge, and elsewhere. sandrabarnidge.com

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