One Writer’s Advice, And a Big Flamingo

May 27, 2012

Recently I finished the paperback tour for my latest book, In the Garden of Beasts, which took me to some 15 towns and cities, from San Diego, CA, to Portsmouth, NH. During my travels I found that one question in particular kept coming up: What advice would I give to someone just starting out as a writer?

My answer: Go back! Rethink! Get some electro-shock treatment and jolt the idea out of your mind. Do something sane and productive. Build houses. Make pottery. Shoot wedding portraits. Start a hedge fund.

However, if writing’s really what you want to do, here are some bits of advice that my own experience has shown to be important.

–Don’t let your friends discourage you. There’s always someone out there willing to tell you no, you can’t do it. Just ignore these folk, and look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself, “If not me, then who?”

–Write every day. And by that, I mean every day, seven days a week. Okay, take a break at Christmas, and maybe on Thanksgiving Day. Maybe. But writing is one part gleaming inspiration, ten parts plain old hard work, made harder by the constant background refrain of self-doubt that every writer I’ve ever met has had to confront at some point in his or her career.

–Most important: Stop writing when you’re ahead. A lot of beginning writers tend to do what I call “binge writing.” That is, one day, when powerfully moved, they’ll sit down to write, and then keep writing for ten hours straight. The problem is, if you do this, you risk running dry.

The real challenge for writers is getting up the next day and starting all over again. In fact, a lot of writers I know devise little psychological tricks for helping them cross that threshold each day. Here’s mine: I always make sure to stop writing at a point where I know I will be able to pick up again the next morning, often in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence. The sheer self-deceiving beauty of this is that when you sit down to write, you know you will be instantly productive–you’ll finish that sentence. There’s another benefit: Thanks to the miracle of the human brain, when you leave that paragraph or sentence unfinished, throughout the rest of the day and especially overnight your subconscious mind will not only finish it, but will map out the next few paragraphs, possibly even the next few pages.

So, onward!


In other news: This past weekend, after attending the graduation from grad school of my eldest daughter in Washington, D.C., I and my family took a drive, in our Zipcar, to Baltimore to revisit our old neighborhood and some other places that had shaped our twelve years in the city, among them “The Cafe Hon,” named for that penchant of Baltimore waitresses to address customers with the diminutive form of “honey.” As in, “what’ll it be today, hon?” We stopped in for a delightful, if rather late, lunch of crab cakes, burgers, and steamed shrimp, but only after leaving did I happen to notice the giant pink flamingo erected outside, apparently for the upcoming “HonFest.” John Waters must certainly be proud.

Pink flamingo--GIANT--outside Cafe Hon in Baltimore

The Cafe Hon, in Baltimore's Hamden neighborhood


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Seduction and Distraction

January 19, 2012


Image of fields and trees of different shades, depth

A number of readers have asked why there are so few photographs in my books. I’ll explain. But first, let me throw some napalm on the grill and say this: If it were up to me, there would be no photographs at all. I did get my way with a couple of my books, notably Lethal Passage and Isaac’s Storm, but eventually my publisher, editor, publicist, mailman, and dentist forced me to compromise. 

Fact is, I adore photographs as an art form; I love wandering around with my digital SLR camera, experimenting with lenses, settings, filters, and composition. (I took the photo above on Whidbey Island, WA, Jan. 8, 2012.) What I don’t like are photographs inserted in nonfiction books, especially books like mine that are meant to be read as if they were novels. Coffee-table books or medical texts, of course, are a different matter; the more photos, and the gorier, the better.

Otherwise, photographs distract readers from the business at hand, which is reading. They typically are grouped together in one or two sections called “signatures,” each having maybe half a dozen glossy white pages, with two or three photos per page. (The photos are invariably gray, washed out, and too small to provide much viewing satisfaction, but that’s a different complaint.) When reading a book so-equipped, the temptation is to flip to the signature every minute or so, and you can find it readily, because the paper is shiny; it gleams from the text like a lighthouse beacon.

When I write a book, my goal is to create as seamless a dream of the past as possible. Needless to say, this has nothing to do with “making it up,” but everything to do with mining the historical record for the most vivid, evocative details, and deploying these in such a way as to light a fire in the reader’s imagination. My ideal reader is someone who sits down to read one of my books, with a glass of bourbon or a cup of tea at hand, and allows himself or herself to fall into the past, without emerging until the book is done. Photographs obstruct this descent. They invite a reader to stop reading, take a break, go to bed, thereby always creating the possibility that our dear reader will never return. One of my favorite writers, the late John Gardner, author of Nickel Mountain and Grendel, once wrote that anything that distracts, be it overly showy writing, inept punctuation, even an unusual type font, is to be avoided, lest it impair the creation of this narrative dream.

It is also the case that historical photographs often don’t do justice to the moment at hand. For example, in Galveston, Texas, after the monster hurricane of 1900, surviving residents resorted to burning thousands of corpses in impromptu pyres throughout the city. In the course of my research for my book on the hurricane, Isaac’s Storm, I saw photographs of such pyres, but they failed to capture what surely was the reality of the moment—the scents, the sounds, the sheer horror of seeing a next-door neighbor hurled into the flames, all this amid the cloying heat of a Galveston summer day.  

Ultimately, I lost my battle to have no photographs at all, but my publisher and I reached what I consider to be a happy compromise, for the books that followed Isaac’s Storm. Instead of a glossy signature, I insert a small number of carefully chosen photographs into the text itself, at the start of each major section or “Part.” Thus readers come upon each photograph in the natural course of reading, and each photo does something to propel the narrative forward—perhaps raising a question, or imparting a mood. My favorite photograph in my new book, In the Garden of Beasts, is the one at the start of Part IV, which captures a woman sitting on a bench in the snow-covered Tiergarten in January 1934. There is something melancholy and threatening about that image that fits exactly the character of the scenes that follow.

What I want most is to create the kind of experience expressed by a woman in Chicago after she read my Devil in the White City. She got up during the question and answer period of one of my talks, and, her voice wobbling with emotion, declared, “When I finished reading your book, I didn’t want to come back.”


Interesting light, Whidbey Island, Jan. 18, 2012




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Whidbey Island, Christmas Day

January 6, 2012

Whidbey Island approach, during storm, weird light

I took these photographs on Christmas Day, 2011, aboard a ferry approaching Whidbey Island, in Puget Sound, during a strange and, as it happened, deadly windstorm. The photos have not been modified in any way, though some detail has been lost due to compression for posting on this site.

  Whidbey Island, from ferry, looking bleak, during storm


Whidbey Island Christmas

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