Envious of the Dead?

Every writer has “favorites” that inspire him or her. “Inspire” can be of the monetary, notoriety or just plain, “how (s)he do dat?” variety. We prefer not to engage in literary envy, “thou shalt not covet” being the 10th commandment—“commandment” being a stronger level of prohibition than “spiffy tip for self empowerment.”

Our dream is to approximate the first line of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, …”). Our nightmare is to write like the oft-parodied first line of Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”) Bulwer-Lytton did have a writing contest named after him … for atrocious first lines.

That said, we admit to having our literary inspirations, mostly in the vein of, “Wow, I wish I could write like that.” Noting of course, that in some cases of particularly lofty writers, there is fat chance of it to the point where we might be better off entering the Bulwer-Lytton contest where the www means wretched writers welcome.

At the top of our list of writers to emulate is C.J. Box. He writes mysteries, just like us, only better. Way better, it pains us to admit. Box’s Joe Pickett books are so well written, you want to read them more than once, even though you already know whodunnit and howdunnit and that the bad guy really, really deserved to get eaten by a mountain lion. Just picking a couple of things to like (and there’s a lot to like) in his writing, it’s not an exaggeration to say that wilderness is, a character in his Joe Pickett stories––Pickett is a Wyoming game warden. The descriptions of nature, and the way Box weaves nature into his stories makes you want to drop everything and head to Wyoming, even on a freakin’ freezing winter day. Because the wilderness is part and parcel of his writing, he weaves in issues such as the environmental protection, competing interests in land usage, and endangered species. And he does so Without Hitting You Over The Head With His Opinion. Thoughtful, interesting, never fails to entertain, in a “go away and don’t bother me I want to finish this book and I ain’t budging until I do (unless there is chocolate involved)” way.

Not surprisingly, C.J. Box has multiple awards. A partial list includes the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel (Blue Heaven, 2009) as well as the Anthony Award, Prix Calibre 38 (France), and the Macavity Award. His novels have been translated into 27 languages and been optioned for film and television. Envious? Ah, er…let’s say, his writing is something to aspire to. We don’t envy, we aspire.

Another writer we like is John Buchan. One of us is an outright fanatic, nearly cleaning out the “B” shelf in an Edinburgh bookshop on one occasion (he is a native son). Probably best known for The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan has written so much more than that and had an interesting life; he worked in naval intelligence in WWI and was the Governor-General of Canada. Buchan weaves in history, political intrigue, and comes up with plot devices that are intriguing and then some. One book, John MacNab, involves a contest among four rather bored aristocratic types to poach a salmon or a stag from a friend’s estate but turns into – well, much more than that. Warning: once you start on Buchan, you won’t be able to stop. Book that trip to Edinburgh right now – it’s not so easy to find all his work in the US – and sign up for that 12-step Buchan Detox program, because you will become an addict. He’s a dang good writer, but we don’t envy him. He’s dead. But we envy the ability to spin a great story.


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