Hard Cold Winter, Glen Erik Hamilton’s follow-up to his highly regarded debut, Past Crimes, puts his former criminal and soldier into even a tougher spot than in the first book. In Hard Cold Winter, Hamilton’s protagonist gets involved with the murder of a prominent Seattle citizen’s son and the sister of one of his shady friends from the past. In this guest blog post he sent along, Hamilton discusses his bookshelf, and how he uses different works for different forms of inspiration.
Friends with Words
© 2016 Glen Erik Hamilton
I have a bookshelf. Quite a few shelves, of course, but this one particular shelf is within reach of the little desk where I do most of my writing. Too easy a reach.
We’re not a procrastination, the books seem to say. Not like playing with the cat, or the horrible abyss of the internet. We’ll HELP you.
Shut up, you novels. Later. I’ve got an hour scheduled for reading later. That’s my reward for getting these pages done.
I turn back to the keyboard. Back to typing, with hands slightly shaky.
Some authors choose not to indulge in reading other fiction while they are hammering out the first draft of their latest work. A hardcore few go so far as to avoid reading at all, except between books. They fear that the phrases or plot twists or rhythms they read will somehow be replicated in their writing, and they might wind up with a pale imitation of their favorite author, or worse, a Frankensteinian mishmash of colliding styles. Better to abstain, and keep their pages pure.
That brand of austerity doesn’t work for me. I’m hardly ever between books, for one thing. Recently, I saw a quote from Lawrence Kasdan (Yes, on the internet; don’t judge me.) He said: “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”
Writing for a living certainly feels that way. I SHOULD BE working all the time, my conscience tells me, whenever I’m not. I SHOULD BE writing faster, better, with more concentration, even when the fingers are already flying over the keyboard.
So to quell that internal voice, I offer myself incentives, including scheduled hours for pleasure reading. It’s essential. During a crush of deadlines last year, racing to finish my second book while launching my first in span of six weeks, spare minutes for anything else were at a premium. Reading was, tragically, the first thing to be jettisoned.
While I hope and pray the quality of my writing didn’t suffer from that decision, there’s no doubt that my mood took a belly flop. I missed books. Just like hours spent with good friends can lighten our daily burden, I felt the weight of not having the company of other stories, other ideas. No treats for good behavior made for a sullen dog.
I plan to rectify that mistake, this time around. But should I consume only fiction? A balanced diet from the bookshelf might offer some advantages…
The very best thing about studying the craft of writing is that most of the teachers know how to make the lesson a good read. Anyone who has slogged through an Economics volume or a textbook on Operating Systems can appreciate that. Especially nice is that many guides are structured in short delicious chapters, which makes it easy to devour one as an appetizer or dessert after your pages are done.
A few favorite professors:
Lawrence Block’s Spider, Spin Me a Web
Stephen King’s On Writing
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird
David Morrell’s The Successful Novelist
Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life
Of course, what you’re researching will vary from book to book, and you might be surfing YouTube or interviewing (these still exist!) IRL people to get all of the images and details you need. But let’s say that you’re reading either online articles – caveat lector where truth and the internet are concerned – or physical books. Consider a few of these options, once you’ve devoured all the history books:
Newspaper articles from the period
City, state, and federal archives
First-hand accounts and biographies of contemporary people
Graduate papers and theses
Other fiction written at that time and place
While the two categories above might be motivational, there’s nothing for me as inspiring as reading a really well-crafted tale. Sometimes one particular aspect of an author’s skill will grab me and shake me and demand attention.
Here are just a handful of past and present masters:
- For plot: Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. It burned up the bestseller lists in the seventies, and practically invented the genre of the How-Its-Done modern thriller. Often challenged, but never defeated.
- For dialogue: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It might seem contradictory, but the difference in language since the Regency make it easier to set aside what’s being said and consider why the characters are saying it, and what it reveals about them.
- For lyricism: All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Poetry was a big part of fiction for a very long time. Readers prefer small portions now, and in some ways that’s a victory of quality over sheer quantity (I’m talkin’ to you, Thomas Hardy), but it’s worth seeing someone who can dole out a long descriptive passage and make it as exciting as a gunfight.
- For attitude: Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories. So hard-boiled they’re set in stone. Noir, before parody and irony got their mitts on it.
- For characters saying a lot without saying a lot: Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. Smith’s characters live and work in a society where their own words can weave the rope that hangs them. Or where the investigator can very quickly become the suspect.
- For masterful end-of-chapter page-turners: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. A friend recommended that I check out the first book in Collins’s trilogy specifically for this reason, and it didn’t disappoint. I lost most of a night’s sleep to tearing through the novel, and read it again later to study how she worked that magic.
Right now, I’m hip-deep into drafting my third book, which is due in six months. I’ll plan better this time (Yes, I will. Stop snickering).
We’ll HELP you, the books on the shelf still say. Darned if they don’t speak truth.