Writers I’ve Learned From: Erle Stanley Gardner

by James Scott Bell

Erle Stanley Gardner

A friend of mine sent me an article about the great pulp writer Erle Stanley Gardner. Since he has been an influence on my own work, I thought I’d do a little reflecting on the man and his method.

Let’s start with work ethic. All the great pulp writers had to relentlessly hammer the keys in order to put food on the table. Get a load of this:

When he died, in 1970, Erle Stanley Gardner was the best-selling American fiction author of the century. He wrote 100,000 words a month for some fifty years. His New York Times obituary cited sales of more than 170 million books in the US alone, and reported his paperback publisher saying that in the mid 1960s they sold 2,000 Gardner books an hour, eight hours a day, 365 days a year.

From the 1920s on, Gardner produced an avalanche of pulp stories, novellas, cowboy yarns, science fiction, travelogues and several mystery series, on top of the 80 Perry Mason novels that cemented his fame and fortune, and won him fans such as Einstein (reported to be reading a Perry Mason novel on his deathbed), Harry S. Truman, and Pope John XXIII.

Early on, Gardner pounded manual typewriters. Sometimes his fingers would bleed and he’d tape them up and keep typing. Later he made copious use of the Dictaphone and a team of secretaries. This, I will note, did not result in deathless prose. But Gardner knew what buttered his bread:

“I write to make money, and I write to give the reader sheer fun. People derive moral satisfaction from reading a story in which the innocent victim of fate triumphs over evil. They enjoy the stimulation of an exciting detective story. Most readers are beset with a lot of problems they can’t solve. When they try to relax, their minds keep gnawing over these problems and there is no solution. They pick up a mystery story, become completely absorbed in the problem, see the problem worked out to final and just conclusion, turn out the light and go to sleep.”

Some years ago I decided to read several Perry Mason novels in order. What was it about Mason that caught on in such a big way? The first Mason is The Case of the Velvet Claws (1933). It didn’t take me long to see the appeal. It wasn’t just smarts Mason possessed. All series detectives have that (e.g., Holmes, Poirot, Marple). No, it was his dogged loyalty to his clients and his determination to fight for them to the bitter end. In a letter to William Morrow about the series he was contemplating, Gardner wrote:

I want to make my hero a fighter, not by having him be ruthless with women and underlings, but by having him wade into the opposition and battle his way through to victory. . . . the character I am trying to create for him is that of a fighter who is possessed of infinite patience. He tries to jockey his enemies into a position where he can deliver one good knockout punch.

Even more, Mason was a modern knight, with a code. As the article states:

Central to these novels is the idea of loyalty—Mason’s loyalty to clients and to the truth; Drake and Street’s loyalty to Mason. Such loyalty is integral to the code of King Arthur’s round table, and the Three Musketeers, whose motto is “All for one and one for all.”

Perry Mason—incorruptible, clever, dedicated, dogged—slots nicely into the Arthurian mould. His “grail quest” is the pursuit of justice on behalf of innocents unable to defend themselves; his jousting field is a courtroom. He is never unseated.

My series character Mike Romeo is, like Mason, a knight. When I was a wee lad I used to watch Perry Mason (starring Raymond Burr) with my lawyer father. The other influence from that time was Have Gun, Will Travel which starred Richard Boone as Paladin (paladin, n., a knight, a champion, a legendary hero). I wrote about that influence here.

So thanks to Mr. Erle Stanley Gardner for his example. Now all I have to do is write 100,000 words in the next four weeks…

Is there an author whose work ethic or professionalism has made in impression on you? How is your own writing practice during these challenging days?


54 thoughts on “Writers I’ve Learned From: Erle Stanley Gardner

  1. Jim, that is a terrific story about Gardner taping his fingers up and continuing to hammer away. He’s an inspiration to us all, no matter what our vocational calling might be.

    Re: work ethic…I’ll name two, if I may. The first would be James Lee Burke, who in his early 80s continues to publish some of his best work. The second would be Stephen King, who came back from two near-death experiences — a life-threatening accident and addiction — to experience a creative renaissance.

    As for these challenging days…nothing much has changed for me. I’m somewhat reclusive and anti-social anyway, so it hasn’t really affected me or changed anything, other than to read IF by Rudyard Kipling frequently while taking it to heart.

    Thanks for another terrific post.

  2. I love this. I like to write about good people triumphing over evil. Hope that never goes out of style. Sometimes I wonder.

    I work for a hospital, so it’s been challenging. I write on weekends, the great escape. I’ve put aside the scary things I was working on – life is scary enough right now – in favor of sweetness and light. I want to write about normal right now – real normal, not the dysyopianfest we’re in right now.

    Peace and light.

  3. Wow. 100K per month for 50 years. What an inspirational writer!

    I’ve been inspired by so many writers over the years, including you and others on the Kill Zone. Nora Roberts is a prolific writer who carries her netbook everywhere she goes. Even at conferences she steals a few minutes here and there to write. I read an article that stated she was at a public speaking event and during the 15 min. break, she found an empty corner to hammer out a page or two of her WIP.

    • I, too, am amazed by Roberts, Amazing. That found-a-corner story is perfect. Back when it was okay to go outside and be around people, I’d often carry my AlphaSmart so I could do some hammering, too, when the opportunity presented itself..

  4. The Hubster and I have been watching the original Perry Mason reruns. I watched them when they were new, and that’s what led me to read the books.
    How times have changed. (And they all drive such old cars!). Not sure how accurate the courtroom scenes are, but the stories are still there.

    I’d nominate JD Robb/Nora Roberts for her work ethic and extreme professionalism.

    • Ha…the courtroom scenes in the Perry Mason TV show were completely unbelievable. So good was Perry at cross-examination he could get someone in the GALLERY to stand up and confess! But when Raymond Burr did it, it was vastly entertaining.

  5. I’m inspired by you, James, by Sue Coletta, by Nora Roberts, ESG too (what a work ethic!) and by Chris Fox. All of you are wonderful leaders, and we all know that leading by example is the best way. It is because of all of you that I am 800 words OVER my weekly goal! So thanks!

  6. I can’t conjure a superlative to describe Mr. Gardner’s proclivity. Writing that quantity with clever plots and tight, colorful prose is athleticism that makes Pheidippides seem like a power walker. And, can I assume that most of his work was single draft?

    • Yes, he wrote in a spare style that did not require more than some touch up, which his secretaries could handle. He was a plotter, though, and spent a good amount of time thinking up the twists and turns. Once that ws done, he wrote really fast.

  7. Anthony Trollope was a focused workhorse. He wrote 47 novels and 17 nonfiction books in 39 years by writing every day from 5-8 AM, before he went to his full-time job at the post office.

    My husband and I have been strict about self-quarantining. Since my in-person social life has been whittled to zero, no lunch dates, no daily walks with my friends, I’ve used the time to establish a regular daily writing schedule. It’s amazing how the word count adds up if I write every day.

  8. I think nearly all of us would agree we’d like to produce more words per month, but the thing that boggles my mind when I read about people producing huge numbers per month like the 100k mentioned here, is how in the world do you NOT get sick and tired of writing?

    • Forgot to add, the writer I admire for their professionalism and productivity runs in a different direction. Robert M. Utley over the course of his life has researched and published about 16 books (non-fic) on the American West. When I think of the dedication to research, dealing with the sheer frustration of research and then doing that continuously over 16 books, I’m in awe.

      • Good point, BK, about some kinds of writing where research is key. James Michener is not everyone’s cup of noodles, but he loaded on massive research in his doorstop books, and did pretty well production-wise.

  9. Hi, Jim

    I’m in awe of Gardner’s output and professionalism. A modern example is my friend Lindsay Buroker, a science fiction and fantasy writer who produces eight to ten novels a year, novels that average around 100K words. She has incredible discipline and focus.

    Even before these strange days of pandemic, I’d been working to become more productive. I’ve been averaging 1-2 novels a year, not enough for some one who wants to be a prolific indie. It’s been a struggle, especially in the past two months. I reread your book on pulp writing a little while back, and need to channel it 🙂

    If you have any other tips for becoming more productive and professionalism, I’m all ears 🙂

    Thanks for this inspiring post!

    • 8 – 10 novels a year! Wow.

      We’re all at different levels, Dale. The only suggestion I have is what I have told writers for 25 years: figure out how many words you can COMFORTABLY do in a week. Up that by 10% and make that your goal. If you miss a day of writing, no prob. You can make it up on other days. If you miss your weekly goal… fuggedaboutit! Start a fresh new week.

      • Thanks, Jim! I’ll take this to heart–figure out how many words I can comfortably write in a week, up it by 10%, AND start logging those words written. You’re right, of course, we’re all at different levels. My biggest goal is to write compelling fiction that gives the reader an entertaining, emotion-filled ride 🙂

      • And it’s all in how we talk to ourselves about our goals. In the Gardner example above, saying 100,000 words a month sounds totally daunting. But you can psych yourself up a little more by rationalizing that it’s only 3,333 words a day (still a lot, but it just seems so much more bite-sized that way).

  10. JSB –
    I’d love a transfusion of his skill and creative genius but I do not envy him his 100000 words/mo or bloody fingers.
    Do you think he could have produced less but of similar quality with a more moderate work ethic (if could have afforded to)?
    Is it reasonable to hope to successfully provide quality reader experience like Mr. Gardner delivered without his apparent
    “all in, all the time” focus and commitment?
    I hope so.
    Understood that if writing is paying the bills “work ethic” equals financial survival. Big difference in writing as livelihood versus the good fortune to pursue as a supported effort.
    It looks like a very tough way to make a living and I admire those that do. Writers like ESG and you(JSB) make me feel “undeserving” as an author due to non-livelihood status and less intense writing ethic.
    Thanks – tom

    • You’re right, Tom. Not everyone can be an ESG, and I’m certainly not. I aim for 6K words a week. Gardner did have to write fast in the pulp days to replace what he was making as a lawyer. He had tricks for this. He almost always used whole character names as dialogue attributions. Why? Because, at a penny a word, that was an easy way to make extra pennies. So it would be:

      Della Street said, “Hello, Paul.”
      “Hi, beautiful,” Paul Drake said.
      “Let’s get down to work,” said Perry Mason.

  11. My go-to for work ethic is Agatha…Christie, that is. I’m not sure how she did it, never have seen a synopsis of her work ethic, but it must’ve been a doozy for all she had in print.

    On a side note, all this talk of Perry Mason brought up some serious nostalgia over here in Central Washington. My mom and I were Perry Mason junkies when I was a teenager. Never missed. I still smell the tea we would brew in the kitchen as we sat down to watch of an afternoon or evening. We took turns guessing whodunit, sometimes placing bets (I usually lost a chocolate chip cookie over the deal).

    Funny, the things you remember … 🙂

    • This is a Christie quote I often Tweet:
      “There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.”

      • …which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.

        Terry, that’s a great quote! And it tells me I might be morphing into a professional, because I find myself in all three of those phrases more and more. *Sigh*

        Let’s see, which is it today…? 🙂

  12. 100,000 words a month for 50 years? That’s 60 million words! What an inspiration. No wonder his fingers bled. I remember watching the Perry Mason series as a child, but I’ve never read any of Gardner’s books. My TBR pile just got a lot bigger.

    Others have mentioned Anthony Trollope and I’ll add my appreciation for his work and his work ethic. My husband and I are both fans of the Barchester Chronicles, and we even have audio versions that we sometimes listen to as we drift off to sleep. My favorites are The Small House at Allington and Orley Farm.

    I read an interesting article about Trollope written by Adam Gopnik in 2015 in the New Yorker. Here’s a quote that’s especially appropriate to today’s topic: “Writing is turning time into language, and all good writers have an elaborate, fetishistic relationship to their working hours.”

    I also hold Agatha Christie in high esteem. Maybe not quite as prolific as some of the others, but I’d be happy with 80 published works.

    I’ll add James Scott Bell to my list. Mike Romeo is one of my favorite fictional characters. And Mr. Bell has been the strongest influence on my writing discipline.

  13. Gardner and Isaac Asimov were evil twins with the same work ethic down to the secretaries typing away. Asimov simply couldn’t stop writing. He’d type “The End” and within a few hours would start the next book or short story. The character Jubal Harshaw in Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND is very much Asimov as far as his creativity.

    I’d bet Barbara Cartland who wrote Regency romances would bury these boys in the number of novels she published, 723! She’s considered the most prolific and successful novelist of the 20th Century.

    For living and working writers, I definitely agree that Nora Roberts/ JD Robb is an author to aspire to. She’s not only prolific, but her craft is always up to point. Even with her output, her novels don’t feel like she’s using universal find and replace to change names and hair colors to create new novels or an AI template to write new novels. She builds the characters and plot from the ground up.

    As far as the elements that you like from PERRY MASON and PALADIN, they are archetypal/mythic requirements straight out of heroic stories from as far back as Homer’s ODYSSEY to Spencer’s “Fairie Queene” to current genre novels. Any popular genre novelist who can tap into those archetypes without being obvious will almost always be a successful author.

    • You’re right, Marilynn. There’s a reason mythic archetypes and structure word. You can try to build a better mousetrap, but if it doesn’t catch mice, what good is it?

  14. Inspiring as always, Jim! Wow, 100K words/month and bleeding fingers. As a kid, every Saturday night at 8 p.m., I was planted in front of the TV, eagerly waiting Perry’s next adventure.

    At my favorite Bad Rock Bookstore, I just found an ESG original hardback, copyright 1956, of The Case of the Lucky Loser.

    The teaser blurb on the back cover was really clever. He presents six suspects in the case and plucks a quote from the story by each character that also is a clue to the killer. Here are two examples:

    “DORLA BALFOUR: Remember, Mr. Mason, I came from the wrong side of the tracks myself, and I made it, but I’m just telling you it’s a long, hard climb.”

    “BANNER BOLES: You try to double-cross me and I’ll make you the sickest individual in the state of California. And don’t ever forget I can do it.”

    Do you think ESG would mind if I steal his trick?

  15. James, what a wonderful story about your writing hero. My writing hero is of course you. I’ve bought/read all your books and they influence me with my own writing. I’ve been a bit sidelined during COVID, but this article has put the writing fire under me.

    Keep typing and so will I.

  16. Thanks, James.

    One of my friends didn’t care for the Perry Mason books, but like you, I watched the TV series with my parents when I was a child. After reading this post, I plan to add some of Erle Stanley Gardner’s books to my wish list.

  17. The author whose ethics I admire most, is Lee Child. Not just because he spin a devil of a complex story with his Jack Reacher novels, not just because, like Mason and King Arthur, Jack Reacher is a true knight, but mostly because Child embodies all I have been taught from my “high brow” writing instructors without losing the excitement. He knows how and where to add the best similes, metaphors and anecdotes where descriptions would otherwise be wasted. Lee Child has the best of both Genre and Literary fiction down. Still, He continues, without fail, it pump them out, never downgrading, but actually, when you think he would run out of creative vision, he just gets better.

    • I must add however, a big thank you Scott for your article. Certainly 100,000 words a month is a goal hard to match. While I have no idea how prolific Mr. Child is, I know he pushes forth a long list, but 100,0000 words a month is more than admirable and a good number to work for if I want to be successful. Basically, I must strive harder.

  18. I can’t speak to the man’s work ethic, but Frederick Schiller Faust, aka Max Brand, certainly cranked out words by the tanker-load. (I know you’ve posted about him here before, Mr. Bell). I love a lot of things about this man. He wrote so many novels I keep finding new ones I’ve never read. In his stories, there’s a lot of repeat in terms of theme, but every story of his that I’ve read has been unique in its way. And I love the length of his novels. I work 50 to 60 hours a week. That’s my excuse for not getting into the 400. to 500 page doorstops I see a lot of people reading. It would take me a year to finish one. 150 to 250 pages with stories like move along like a freight train – that’s a perfect fit for me.
    I wish westerns still had a good market.

  19. I was inspired by Robert A. Heinlein’s writing advice, including his observation that, no matter how bad you are, there are publications buying pieces that are even worse. (Whether they actually send the money they owe you is a different matter.) Back in the day, I tried writing some nonfiction magazine articles on my Apple II in college, and it was true! The low standards of publications that paid almost nothing, the late or non-payment, everything. But I soon worked my way up to a book contract with a major publisher. (Fiction has proven a bit tougher.)

    Much later, I was impressed by William Wallace Cook’s “The Fiction Factory,” published in 1911, where he described how he churned out 60,000 words of pulp fiction per month. He was an early adopter of the typewriter and card-file indexes to his ever-growing scrapbooks of source material clipped from newspapers and magazines.

  20. I remember watching the old black & white Perry Mason shows with my mother when I was a child. I have never read ESG but I do have a few of his books in my TBR list. I still watch the old reruns on the retro channels. If you get METV, they’re on weekdays in the morning and evening. It’s amazing how prolific ESG was, even by today’s standards with all of the advancements in technology that we have that weren’t available in his time. It makes me wonder what he would have accomplished if he had the access that we have. I remember typing on manuals and the Selectric typewriters. Not easy! What an inspiration to us all.

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  22. I’m surprised that no one mentioned John D. MacDonald — besides writing the 21 Travis McGee novels, he also wrote 46 other novels (mostly mystery, but a few sci-fi also) and published a handful of short story collections.

    I believe it was someone named Bell, on a site very similar to this one, who wrote a couple of years ago, that MacDonald “approached his writing like a job. He wrote each day from morning till noon, had lunch, went back to work and knocked off at five for a martini and dinner. He took Sundays off.”

    Definitely worth remembering!

  23. I’m still a huge Perry Mason fan. I’m not sure if anyone’s mentioned it, but there is a great book you can find about Earl Stanley Gardner called Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer. In the back of the book is a huge appendix with Gardner’s take on theories, plots, motives, and characters.

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