Check me out on ‘Mysteries at the Museum’

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Museum

WarofWordsEarlier this year, I taped a segment for the Travel Channel show “Mysteries at the Museum” and discussed the events chronicled in my 2009 book, War of Words. I’ve been told the segment, which covers the murder of San Francisco Chronicle founder Charles de Young in 1880 is about 15 minutes in length. Click the show logo above to view an extended preview.

As for War of Words, it’s sadly out of print and never found the audience it quite deserved. You can, however, buy used copies on Amazon.

The episode airs on Friday, October 24!

Legend of the Fall: Jim Harrison on Writing

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JIM HARRISON

Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall) has, in recent years, become one of my favorite authors. His books are populated by lovable misfits and loners, and generally focus on man’s relationship with nature. This is never done in a preachy way, but in bold tales of drinking, sex, and love-gone-wrong. He’s been compared to Hemingway—but whereas both have a bare-boned style of writing, Harrison’s work exudes much more warmth. Indeed, Harrison himself once summarized Hemingway’s work as a “woodstove that didn’t give off much heat.” His output includes an amazing number of novels, novella collections, and volumes of poetry. This is good news for me; although I’ve read a half-dozen of his books, I have plenty more to go.

Earlier this year, in a piece for The Atlantic, he described his approach to writing prose and poetry. You can read the article here in its entirety, but I’ve excerpted my favorite part:

I think about my novels for a long time before I start to write them—a year or more, sometimes many years. I’m half Swede, and Swedes are brooders. I just sit around brooding about it. A lot of this happens when I’m walking or driving. I’ll take long, directionless car trips to try and see where my mind is. Usually, the story begins with a collection of images. I’ll make a few notes in my journal, but not very much. Often not much more than a vague outline. A tracery, a silhouette.
That’s how the story “Brown Dog” came to me—from an image. I had visited the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Sault Ste. Marie. They had photos of the cook in the galley of a sunken ship that went down in the 1890s. The lakes up there are so cold that the cook looked perfectly preserved, floating around in the galley—except he didn’t have any eyes. That’s how the story started.
Once I start, I very rarely change my mind about the nature of the story. And when I begin writing, it’s sound that guides me—language, not plot. Plot can be overrated. What I strive for more is rhythm. When you have the rhythm of a character, the novel becomes almost like a musical composition. It’s like taking dictation, when you’re really attuned to the rhythm of that voice.
You can’t go to it. It has to come to you. You have to find the voice of the character. Your own voice should be irrelevant in a novel. Bad novels are full of opinions, and the writer intruding, when you should leave it to your character.
When you’re not writing in the first person as the speaking character, the danger is there’s too much temptation to show off. And many writers do. They hit what they think is a high note, then keeping shooting for that. I like what Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker says: She has to have a story, she can’t just have effect. There must be more than writerly effect. And it’s true. Nobody likes a showoff.

Stephen King On Writing a Good Opening Sentence

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stephenking

Stephen King is one of two authors—Ian Fleming being the other—who made me, when I was thirteen, want to become a professional scribe. While cruising around online the other night, I found a piece King wrote last year for The Atlantic, in which he details the importance of a good opening line. You can read the article here in its entirety—but here’s a glimpse at what he had to say:

There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s a tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.
But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
How can a writer extend an appealing invitation — one that’s difficult, even, to refuse?
We’ve all heard the advice writing teachers give: Open a book in the middle of a dramatic or compelling situation, because right away you engage the reader’s interest. This is what we call a “hook,” and it’s true, to a point. This sentence from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice certainly plunges you into a specific time and place, just as something is happening:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Suddenly, you’re right inside the story — the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting — and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious.
This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do. In “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” we can see right away that we’re not going to indulge in a lot of foofaraw. There’s not going to be much floridity in the language, no persiflage. The narrative vehicle is simple, lean (not to mention that the book you’re holding is just 128 pages long). What a beautiful thing — fast, clean, and deadly, like a bullet. We’re intrigued by the promise that we’re just going to zoom.

The rest of the article is worth checking out, so stop hanging around here!

The lost art of writing ghost stories

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Image credit: Daily Telegraph

Image credit: Daily Telegraph

I love a good ghost story—but, as a general rule, I don’t read them during the summer. Sunshine and swimming pools minimize the creep factor. This month, however, I made an exception. I’ve been trying to read every unread volume on my bookshelf. I have no set strategy; I simply grab whatever catches my fancy. The most recent book to do so was Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories. It’s been sitting on my shelf for several years and, for whatever reason, has always been overlooked. It’s a collection edited by Dahl and contains some real gems. Ignoring my rule about specters and summer, I dived in and was pleasantly creeped out by a good number of tales. If you enjoy the macabre, check it out.

While reading the book, it occurred to me that writing a genuinely good ghost story is very much a lost art. Horror stories today focus on the gory and have an in-your-face quality to them. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, it’s a lot harder to scare someone by what they don’t see. I prefer English ghost stories for the simple reason I’ve never read a decent one by an American author (okay—Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is an exception). The Grand Master of the English ghost story is, without doubt, M.R. James (1862-1936). He served in his lifetime as provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and Eton—but it’s for his disturbing tales that he’s best remembered. In total, he published four books. Penguin has collected all his stories in two great volumes, Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories and The Haunted Dollhouse and Other Ghost Stories. In the preface to his 1911 volume More Ghost Stories of An Antiquary, James details what makes an effective ghost story:

I think that, as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear on any day. A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, “If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!” Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story. Again, I feel that the technical terms of “occultism,” if they are not very carefully handled, tend to put the mere ghost story (which is all that I am attempting) upon a quasi-scientific plane, and to call into play faculties quite other than the imaginative.

No doubt he would have loathed Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Writers on the rocks

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Photo credit: Esquire.com

The Paris Review once interviewed Hunter S. Thompson and asked him, among other things, about writing under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Here’s the relevant exchange:

Paris Review: Almost without exception writers we’ve interviewed over the years admit they cannot write under the influence of booze or drugs—or at the least what they’ve done has to be rewritten in the cool of the day. What’s your comment about this?

Thompson: They lie. Or maybe you’ve been interviewing a very narrow spectrum of writers. It’s like saying, “Almost without exception women we’ve interviewed over the years swear that they never indulge in sodomy”—without saying that you did all your interviews in a nunnery. Did you interview Coleridge? Did you interview Poe? Or Scott Fitzgerald? Or Mark Twain? Or Fred Exley? Did Faulkner tell you that what he was drinking all the time was really iced tea, not whiskey? Please. Who the fuck do you think wrote the Book of Revelation? A bunch of stone-sober clerics?

Writers love their drinks. I don’t think that’s a stereotype.

“You’re a rummy, but no more than most good writers are.” So wrote Hemingway—a man who knew a thing or two about drinking—in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Writing and alcohol have long been companions. Indeed, numerous bars around the world continue to benefit from the patronage of their famous—though, now deceased—customers. There are more than a handful of watering holes who boast Hemingway as a one-time patron. The writer was a frequent visitor to Harry’s Bar in Venice, where he had his own table in the corner. He laid numerous daïquiris to waste at El Floridita in Havana and enjoyed drinking scotch at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West.

Dylan Thomas gulped his last drink at Manhattan’s White Horse Tavern. Thompson enjoyed frequent libations at the Woody Creek Tavern in Colorado. Ian Fleming drank a bottle of gin a day. This, coupled with his daily habit of smoking seventy cigarettes, contributed to his early demise at the age of fifty-six. His favorite pub was the Duck Inn in Pett Bottom near Canterbury. His favorite chair in the back is dully marked. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, while not heavyweight drinkers like the aforementioned scribes, met Tuesday mornings as part of a group called “The Inklings” at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. A plaque above their table marks the meeting spot. Jack Kerouac paid regular visits to Vesuvio across the street from City Lights in San Francisco.

Tourism spots aside, many great scribblers have embraced alcohol—often to their own detriment. But I’ve always wanted to know why? Perhaps it has something to do with availability and opportunity. If you’re wandering around your house all day, trying to come up with something to jot down on paper, it’s pretty easy to grab a scotch from the wet bar or beer from the fridge. Perhaps it’s a distraction from the solitary nature of writing itself. Authors, by their trade, are loners, and a drink can be good company. A 2008 Los Angeles Times article I found on this subject matter states:

“Intoxication, if not the source of literary creation, creates a cerebral aura congenial to it. It recasts the glare of life in a softer hue. It soothes anxiety and other stultifiers of reflection. It warms the mind and thaws thoughts frozen in timidity. The fruit of the vine does not give us insight but aids our discovery of it; it can allow you to eavesdrop on yourself.”

Writing, as all who do it know, is hard work. It’s mentally taxing at times and can wear you down. I might sit with a glass of scotch or wine beside me as I write, but I would never tackle a page while feeling intoxicated—or even slightly buzzed. Yes, alcohol takes the edge off, but I want my mind to be as sharp and focused as possible when I work. That said, I do enjoy drinking and toasting a good day’s writing.

Of course, none of this answers the question as to why so many authors are full-blown alcoholics. Consider this fact from a 2011 article in Slate: “According to one study, 71 percent of prominent 20th-century American writers at least flirted with alcoholism. (Only 8 percent of the general population abuses alcohol.)”

Henry Miller’s advice for writers

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Miller

To be perfectly honest, I only read Henry Miller in high school for the sex. I remember tearing through Under the Roofs of Paris, quite shocked—yet enthralled—by what was on the page. In his book Henry Miller on Writing, he lists his eleven commandments for getting the job done. I think he offers great advice; commandments five and eight are most noteworthy, in my humble opinion. Don’t waste your time, initially, on searching for that golden phrase. Just get the words down . . . and be sure you enjoy the process. If it’s not making you happy in some regard, it’s probably not worth it.

1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.

2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”

3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!

5. When you can’t create you can work.

6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.

7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.

8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.

9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.

11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

John Steinbeck on writing

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Steinbeck

Never have I loathed a character more than Cathy Ames in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden—and I mean that in a good way. With the book on my lap, I hurled invective at the page and found myself enraged by her two-faced, back-stabbing ways. That a character could elicit such a visceral response is testament to the author’s skill. Needless to say, I’ve long been a devoted Steinbeck fan.

What I love about his work–in addition to the characters and writing–is its deceptive simplicity. There are complex issues at play beneath the surface of his stories, yet he presents them in a way that never clouds the human drama. Cannery Row, with its themes of spirituality, happiness, and being close to nature—among others—appears on the surface to be a charming tale of down-and-outs in Monterey’s sardine-canning district.

As previous posts here suggest, I’m fascinated by the working habits of my favorite authors and the way they approach writing. Here, from a 1975 article in the Paris Review, are six writing tips from Steinbeck.

It is usual that the moment you write for publication—I mean one of course—one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.

Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.