The Terrible Task of Weeding Out Books

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks.” — Dr. Seuss

And when the books come falling down, I hope they find you ere you drown.” — Dr. JSB

It had to happen sooner or later. And now it’s later. I can’t put it off any longer. It’s time to disgorge a significant number of the books that stuff all the spaces in every room in my house—except, of course, the bathrooms, wherein the reading material is imported singulatim.

Like you all, I’m a book lover. How can anyone not be and become a writer? I don’t think that’s possible. With books I purchase, my practice has always been to read them and keep them. I’ve always loved being surrounded by books. Right now in my office all four walls have shelves stuffed with reading matter—literary kudzu.

But I know that someday I will be moving from my abode. So as much as it hurts, I need to make a significant dent in my stacks. I’m trying to be systematic. 

First off, I know I’m keeping some series and not others. I’ll keep Connelly, Chandler, Parker, MacDonald, Spillane. But I’m finally ditching Ross Macdonald. I’ve read all his books because Anthony Boucher tagged him as the best of the PI writers. He has a great following among critics. But I never connected with him or his PI, Lew Archer. And I simply don’t have time to try again.

I have a shelf of hardcovers autographed by the authors. I’ll keep those. Ditto my collectibles. I have some oldies that are probably worth something. I’ll let my kids figure that out someday via ebay. 

Another stratagem: I’m reading first chapters at random. If it grabs me, I’ll keep that book (if I think I might read it again). If not, it goes in the giveaway box. Here are some books that have survived:

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
At All Costs by John Gilstrap
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
The Human Comedy by William Saroyan
Final Seconds by John Lutz and David August
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
361 by Donald Westlake
White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Sometimes the writing might be fine, but something else will come up that causes me to pitch the book. An overabundance of F and S words, for example. Or something that doesn’t seem plausible. Ed McBain’s legal thriller Mary, Mary didn’t make the cut for just that reason. I was hooked by the first page. The narrator, lawyer Matthew Hope, is interviewing a potential client accused of murder. But then he states, [I]t was my policy never to defend anyone I thought was guilty.

Ack! No criminal defense lawyer ever says that, because he’d never have any clients. The defense lawyer’s job is to make sure the cops haven’t overstepped their constitutional bounds, and hold the prosecution to its burden of proof. So nix to this book and the others in the Matthew Hope series. 

What am I looking for in that first chapter? We talk about that a lot here at TKZ. I want a grabber hook or a grabber voice—having both is a bonus. An example of a grabber hook is the opening of Harlan Coben’s Promise Me:

The missing girl—there had been unceasing news reports, always flashing to that achingly ordinary school portrait of the vanished teen, you know the one, with the rainbow-swirl background, the girl’s hair too straight, her smile too self-conscious, then a quick cut to the worried parents on the front lawn, microphones surrounding them, Mom silently tearful, Dad reading a statement with quivering lip—that girl, that missing girl had just walked past Edna Skylar.

For grabber voice, here’s the opening of High Five by Janet Evanovich:

When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. On the outside, she’d look like the perfect lady. Tasteful plastic heels, tailored suit. But underneath, she was naked. I’m a bail enforcement agent now—also known as a fugitive apprehension agent, also known as a bounty hunter. I bring ’em back dead or alive. At least I try. And being a bail enforcement agent is a little like being bare-bottom Barbie. It’s about having a secret. And it’s about wearing a lot of bravado on the outside when you’re really operating without underpants. 

Nonfiction is much harder for me to cull. I read nonfiction for specific information that interests me, and I make heavy use of the highlighter. When I’m finished I keep the book because I think maybe I’ll need that information again sometime. And hasn’t this happened to you: The moment I give a book away, or let someone borrow it, not a week goes by before I need something from that very book!

So I don’t know what to do about my NF. I know I’ll never give away my writing craft books. I have several shelves of these, and they are an archaeological record of my writing journey. I often refer to them for refreshers. 

I’m heavily stocked with biography, history, philosophy, theology, reference. Alas, I can’t see myself parting with many of these. I have a full set of the 1947 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (handed down from my grandfather, who sold them door-to-door during the Depression). I keep this because the articles in it are often so much better and more authoritative than what you find online these days. Also, in a special bookcase, is my Great Books of the Western World set, complete with the incredible achievement that is the Syntopicon. That’s obviously staying put. 

Which makes all this slow going! I have a feeling it’s going to take years to gain any significant space. I’m sure I’ll have to revisit my criteria down the line and get tougher on myself. 

“A room without books,” wrote Cicero, “is like a body without a soul.” I’m right with you there, Cic. But now what?

Do you have any advice for this melancholy bibliophile?

How Much Research is Enough?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

My research tells me it’s Mother’s Day. So: Happy Mother’s Day! As Casey Stengel used to say, “You could look it up.”

But before the internet, it was rather easy for a writer to “fake it” when it came to research. That’s because a) there wasn’t an easy way for a reader to find, instantly, whether a detail was correct or not; and b) there wasn’t any social media or customer reviews for blowback. Thus, an author could get away with a bit of sloppiness—if that’s the kind of writer he wanted to be.

I have a friend who is an accomplished historical fiction writer. He worked his tail off on a series that came out in the early 90s. His research was impeccable. While his series sold okay, another historical fiction writer was enjoying much greater success with his series which (to put it mildly) was rather deficient in the research arena. Indeed, I read one of the books in preparation for my own historical series. This author’s book took place in 1904, but after a couple of chapters I had to put it down, because he had a thriving silent movie industry happening in Hollywood.

One problem: Hollywood did not become a popular movie location until around 1910, and certainly wasn’t hopping until the teens.

These days, you couldn’t get away with such a mistake. But would you want to?

Some significant fakery occurs in the classic film, Casablanca. One of the screenwriters, Julius Epstein, once admitted:

There never were Letters of Transit. Germans never wore uniforms in Casablanca, that was part of the Vichy agreement. But we didn’t know what was going on in Casablanca. We didn’t even know where Casablanca was!

But Letters of Transit sounds real. Which is, of course, the key to fakery!

In the 1960s Lawrence Block wrote a paperback series about a world-roaming secret agent named Tanner. When he got the galleys for one of the books he saw an odd term in the text: tobbo shop. What? He checked his own manuscript and saw that he had written tobacco shop. The typesetter had made a mistake. But Block sat back and mused that tobbo shop had a realistic ring to it and besides, how many readers would have been to Bangkok? (I believe he even got some letters from readers who had been there, and did remember those “quaint tobbo shops.”)

Harlan Coben issues a warning about research:

“I think it’s actually a negative for writers sometimes when they’re writing contemporary novels to know too much. First of all, doing research is more fun than writing, so you start getting into the research and you forget to tell your story. And, second, which is on a very parallel track … sometimes you learn all kinds of cute factoids you think are so interesting that you include them in the book, but you weigh the story down. I try not to do that.”

One method I’ve used when writing hot (and not wanting to stop) and I get to a spot where I know I’ll need research, I’ll put in a placeholder (***) and keep writing. I’ll make my best guess about how the scene should go, then do any additions or corrections later.

On the other hand, when writing historical fiction, which demands detail precision, I have to do a lot of research up front. For my series about a young woman lawyer in turn-of-the-century Los Angeles, I spent many, many hours in the downtown L.A. library, poring over microfilm of the newspapers of the day. I have two huge binders full of this research, and I’m really proud of the results. But man, it’s hard work (am I right, Clare?)

But it’s worth it. When the first book came out almost twenty years ago it sold great and got uniformly positive reviews, several mentioning the historical accuracy. I did, however, get a physical letter (remember those?) from the curator of a telephone museum! He said he enjoyed the book, but there was one little detail about my lead, Kit Shannon, using a wall telephone, that I got wrong. The one guy in the United States who would have noticed this happened to read my book!

Naturally, it was not plausible to dump all the books in the warehouse to change that teeny, tiny thing. And who else was going to notice? But it rankled me, nonetheless.

When I got the rights back to the series, that was the only thing I wanted to change. All those years later I was still mad about it! Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the letter from the museum guy. I decided to try to find him online. Instead I found another museum and emailed somebody there, explaining the detail. In return, I got a nice email back telling me there was a model of telephone that operated exactly like I had it. It would have been used only by very wealthy people.

Which is how it was in my book. Kit lives with her wealthy great aunt in the posh section of town known as Angeleno Heights.

I’d been right all along! How about them apples? (Yes, I’ve been wrong before. It was in October of 1993. I thought the Phillies would win the World Series.)

Today, there are areas in your fiction that you’d better get right or you’ll hear about it, boy howdy. Perhaps the biggest of these is weapons. If you have your hero cocking the hammer of his Glock, expect a flood of abuse letting you know that a Glock has no hammer. (And if Gilstrap reads your book, duck, because he’ll be throwing it at you.) If you have your hero shoving another clip into his Beretta, you’ll have an irate horde telling you to shove … never mind, just note that a clip is not a magazine.

If you’re not accurate about a place, you’ll hear from people who live there. This is partly why I base most of my books in my hometown of Los Angeles. I grew up here. I know it. That it also happens to be the greatest crime-noir city is a bonus.

But sometimes I want to venture forth. In some instances, to save me from a cumbersome research trip, I simply make up a town and slap it down somewhere. If people want to take the time to look it up and find out it doesn’t exist, they’ll know I made it up and accept it. Ross Macdonald and Sue Grafton set their series in Santa Teresa, a stand-in for Santa Barbara that allowed them plenty of leeway to make up locations within. No one’s complaining.

So I’ll throw it open. What’s your philosophy on research? Do you follow rabbit trails that can be an excuse to not write? Do you like to do as much….or as little… as possible? Do you, when the spirit moves, “fake it”? 

***

 

Reminder: My latest stand-alone thriller, LAST CALL, is still available at the launch price of 99¢. Because I want you to have it. Enjoy!