Monday, June 15, 2009

The Book I Want to Write But . . .


Some weeks ago I was reading a small book by Graham Greene in which he included summaries of book ideas he never got around to writing. These were two or three page narratives, not outlines, of a story—succinct, packing the GG punch, and very satisfying to read. They had remarkable depth for something so short.


As I was turning the page on one summary, however, a different version of this story came to me—one that corrected what I brazenly considered a flaw, and took me into an entirely different direction. I couldn’t get the new story out of my head. I made dinner, I did the dishes, I worked on a short story, but that “new story” line kept popping up. I finally decided I had to give in to it, which I thought meant just scribbling down a few notes and putting them aside.


I opened a blank page in Word and started to describe the story of a hostage who is released without anyone else knowing about it (in ways that are intended to complicate the plot, of course), and the story went on from there—I couldn’t type fast enough. Characters I hadn’t imagined ran across the page, complications that I have never used and never thought of came right along. I kept typing and typing and typing, and ended up with about twenty pages—and was nearly exhausted. I couldn’t have stopped the story if I had wanted to. It had its own shape and design and purpose, and I was merely transcribing. At every point where I thought I could stop writing, the story went on, with one more twist, one more surprise. A few days later I said to a friend, “This is a LONG book. I’m going to be tired at the end of it.”


This wonderful, unexpected experience may have been inspired by Graham Greene, one of my all-time favorite writers, or perhaps my unconscious was just ready to throw this idea out to me. For whatever reason, I have a pulsating scenario of a novel I long to write, but haven’t—yet. Right now I’m working on the sixth Joe Silva book, finishing up an Anita Ray short story, and editing a manuscript for my day job. But that novel about the hostage is always there in the back of my mind, waiting to be written. And oddly enough, the basic idea doesn’t seem to grow cold or stale, which is what would have happened if the idea was a weak one, just a flash of personal entertainment.


So, watch for this one in the distant future. It won’t go away. It demands to be written, and so it will. But I can’t say when.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

“Authors are sometimes like tomcats: they distrust all the other toms, but they are kind to kittens.”

Malcolm Cowley, Introduction to Writers at Work, First Series (1958)

Every spring the libraries in my area each hold a book sale, and I’m right there buying books I don’t need, will probably not get to for several months, and can’t live without. The exception is always the book of quotations. I recently picked up A Treasury of Familiar Quotations, published by Avenel (a division of Crown) in 1955, with no editor or compiler given. This is very disappointing because I want to know whose quirky tastes have brought together Hannah More and Colton, Mrs. Osgood and Dryden. And with no index of names or quotations, I have to leaf through every page running my finger down the page looking for feminine names, most of which I don’t recognize. Things have changed a lot since the 1950s.

Better is the International Thesaurus of Quotations compiled by Eugene Ehrlich and Marshall De Bruhl (rev. ed. 1996; 1st ed. by Rhoda Thomas Tripp). This one has three indexes, including one of authors and sources, so I can see almost at once the number of women quoted among the men. On the first page of the index are listed five women (if I don’t count Anonymous) among 36 men, a small improvement over the 1955 book.

But my all time favorite is The Mystery Lovers’ Book of Quotations, compiled by Jane Horning (1988). I keep this book near at hand and page through it occasionally, noting all my favorite writers from earlier years. I imagine Ms Horning reading happily along in Dick Francis’s In the Frame and suddenly faced with the almost paralyzing choice of reading on or stopping to savor and record the perfect line, such as this one: “The most damaging lies are told by those who believe they’re true.” I don’t know what I would do here. Mark up the book so I can come back to the quote? Stop reading and thus break the flow? Chew my pencil to bits?

Sometimes I read through a few quotes to get oriented to the crime story I’m working on. But sometimes Ms Horning records a gem that I clutch to my heart, like this one from a novel by Lucille Kallen: “There are two actions that are almost equally reprehensible to me. One is the act of beginning a sentence and then refusing to finish it. The other is murder.”

When I come across quotes like this written by writers I either haven’t read or don’t know, it reminds me of how vast is the crime fiction genre—and probably why I’ve spent much of my adult life squandering my time, as some of my acquaintances have tactfully put it (my friends know better). The danger is that I’ll spend an entire evening reading quotes from Robert Barnard or Ross MacDonald and not get any of my own writing done.

And the quote at the top of this piece? I couldn’t resist it, but I’m not going to elaborate on it. Maybe I’ll come back to that another day.