So you can read my books

Monday, June 25, 2012


Key to what?

The key to writing a classic that readers will go back to over and over again.

And just what is that allusive Second Key?


There are books I go back to just to re-read favorite passages. As in this one where Mark Twain speaks of Hawaii :

"For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surf is in my ear;

I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud-rack;

I can feel the spirit of its woody solitudes, I hear the splashing of the brooks; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago."

Weren't you there for a moment? Didn't you catch, not just the physical touch of the islands, but the spiritual one as well?

The love, the longing, the reluctant parting with those lush, green isles.

Twain didn't write of Hawaii. He SPOKE of it, evokings its very essence and his own. I used that word earlier on purpose. You could almost hear his Missouri twang.

His description wasn't a mere flat reproduction of details. No. His recollections spoke as much of his character as it did of the land.

Descriptions of your setting, if done well, will make of your locale an actual character. They will paint a picture, not only of the surroundings, but also of the soul your perceiving protagonist ...

As in this description of Amsterdam seen through the eyes of Samuel McCord in his new novel I'm currently writing: NEW ORLEANS ARABESQUE ...

Amsterdam. I’d never much cared for it.

There was rot underneath its old world orderliness. Maybe I might have liked it at its beginning when it was just a huddle of fishing huts on the Amsel River with folks just content to hide away from the madness of kings and Popes.

It was a strange city, where coffeshops meant places where you could buy pot. But that they were found in the Red Light District was a real clue that coffee wasn’t the only thing sold there.

And what wasn’t sold in Amsterdam? Honor, dignity, pride, sex -- all was sold on the open market.

For the thing that I had become, Amsterdam was a wild mix of scents and sounds :

the tolling church bells that played snatches of hymns or Beethoven to mark the dying of the hour;

the smell of vanilla drifting off the stack of waffles as I walked by the cafes; barrel organs pumping happily off in the distance;

hearing a gaggle of laughing girls singing around a piano as I strolled by a bordello;

watching a lone professor on a park bench, closing his eyes, as he listened to the music of Sweelinck on a 17th century organ in the Oude Kerk.

But the lawman in me found other more disturbing sensations : the wave of cloyingly sweet cannabis that hit me as soon as I stepped off the train into the station;

the mewing of the drug addicts who had stumbled my way, begging for the price of just one more fix;

the fine smell of aged vomit rising from off the cobblestones as I had made my way along desperate prostitutes, past their prime,

but with no other way to make a living on the street of Stormsteeg;

the silent hollow-eyed girls staring at me from the windows on Molensteeg,

awkwardly bumping and grinding in an attempt to lure me in and keep their pimps from beating the hell out of them for poor sales.

After all, waterfront property costs to keep.

The dead man’s reservation was for the InterContinental Amstel Hotel, the best hotel in the city. Hell, why not? Only the very best for the very worst.

It was where you could find movie stars, popstars, and other famous and infamous celebreties -- and me. His suite was paid up for the month.

His wallet’s money made fine dining affordable, not that I could still taste with the withered thing that passed for a tongue. But as long as I didn’t stick it out at folks, I still looked human.

The night following my arrival found me sitting in the hotel’s best restaurant, La Rive. It had a beautiful panorama of the Amstel River. The dead boy’s money bought me a prime table with the best view.

I would have felt guilty if I had been enjoying it. But all I could see were the addicts and prostitutes that clawed for a living somewhere beyond the dark beauty.

“They are cattle, nothing more,” said a velvet voice above me.

{And as Holmes would say, "The game was afoot."}

If I managed to put my muse where my mouth is, then I conveyed as much about Samuel as I did about the streets and psyche of Amsterdam.

That is what you must do :

You must be as Hemingway -- very precise in what words you use and make them do double-duty : telling as much "why" as "what."

The tight purse-strings of his newspapers forced this discipline upon him.

Telegraphing his articles from exotic locales and warfronts cost his paper $1.25 a word. At those prices each word had better be damn important to his post.

And so it should be with your prose.

Time and patience are short with agents and the average reader. If they are not wisked away by your words to become lost in your setting, they will simply walk away.

Do not let them.

Think back on a moment when the magic of a place caught you up in a moment of awe and wonder.

What did the wind taste like? The air -- was it filled with the scent of pine and lightning strikes?

What sounds did your feet make as you walked --

the crackle of brittle leaves dying at your passing ... the cat-padding of feet sinking deep into soft grass ... the lonely cry of a solitary owl casting his voice into the hollowness of the night?

Hold the reader by the sheer magic of your words. Don't write. Speak. Speak as to a curious friend over the dinner table. Speak of the soul of the land as seen through the heart of your main character.

If you can do that, you will have grasped the Second Key.

"The wind will tell you its truths if you but listen." -- Samuel McCord
At a time when the Nazi's were winning WWII, and it seemed America might find herself alone against Hell, there came a movie that merged dialogue with locale :



  1. I agree Roland. And I'm grateful that there are books we return to because of their wonderful descriptions/settings. Pat Conroy is an author I read and re-read as his descriptions of setting as a character in his novels.


  2. Thanks, Denise:
    The city where we live is such an influence on us that we fail to realize it sometimes. Likewise with the country and the era. I shall try to be there this Friday for your next challenge, Roland

  3. That is definitely what keeps me coming back and re-reading my favorite books! Nice passage, Roland!

  4. Colorful and strong descriptions are something I continue to work on in my writing.

  5. "Don't write, speak." I like that, a lot. Great examples and an excellent point.

  6. Abby:
    I'm glad you liked my passage on Amsterdam. Sam tips his Stetson to you!

    Ernest Hemingway said no writer ever becomes a master merely an apprentice.

    Thank you for the kind words. Great luck with your giveaway and your charity!