The Hunt is On

Image of Suzzllo library, resembling a gothic cathedral

The Suzzallo Library, University of Washington

Once again I’m stranded in the “dark country of no ideas,” as a friend of mine once described it—that place where I end up after completing a book. For whatever reason, I never have a backlog of ideas waiting for me. At the point where I decide on a particular subject, yes, I’ll have competing ideas, but once I make my decision, those other ideas wither and die.   

I wish it were otherwise. I wish I could open one of my old notebooks and find half a dozen winning ideas just sitting there, waiting for me.   

What happens, I think, is that with each new book my thinking evolves, so that what once seemed compelling no longer does. For example, after I wrote Isaac’s Storm, about the giant hurricane that destroyed Galveston in 1900, I quickly found that I had no interest in writing about other kinds of disasters. I realized this most acutely when, after Isaac’s Storm emerged, I spent a day in San Francisco looking through materials on the great earthquake of 1906, thinking it might make a good book.

What I found, however, was that much of what I read had a strikingly similar feel to what I’d come across in my research about the Galveston storm. You could have substituted the word earthquake for hurricane. I felt a real ennui: been there, done that, ain’t doing it again. Plus, there was a fundamental narrative obstacle: The earthquake arrived with no preamble, which meant there’d be no opportunity to build suspense and momentum. The quake just happened. Boom. Crack. Dead. A book about the 1906 earthquake by its nature would be all denouement.

So disasters, as topics, are off my plate forever. Though any time I make broad statements like that, I’m almost invariably forced to retract them. Let’s just say that for now I’m not interested in disasters—not ferry sinkings, armament ships blowing up, or molasses flooding the streets of Boston.   

The other day, in desperation, I resorted to one of my old and typically ineffective tricks, which was to browse the stacks of my favorite library here in Seattle, the Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington, and just pick out books at will. I wandered from shelf to shelf in hopes that some random title would spark in me a new line of thought, before someone called the police. This was fun, but pointless.

I’m also trying to follow the advice that I give to budding writers, which is to read voraciously and promiscuously. My latest effort at this has sent me down some engaging paths. For example, a glancing reference in a novel sent me trotting to the library to take out half a dozen books having to do with the pathology of collecting. What is it that makes people collect things like medieval manuscripts and miniature books? And what causes this passion for collecting to veer into madness and, from time to time, murder?

Who knows? And I no longer care. Sated. Done.

Today I’ll be off on another track entirely, reading wildly, prancing about like a drunken wood sprite, and hoping that by summer’s end, some winning idea will leap out from behind a tree and smack me in the face. 

Because the reality is, the “dark country of no ideas” is actually full of ideas. They’re only hiding.

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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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