Many books I’ve loved caught me with just a few words. I’m sure the conflict was at least hinted, but what hooked me was not the conflict. It was the draw of language and tone, authority or beauty, or both. Knowledge. I trusted the writer, wanted to follow the voice. That happened with Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, Eric Larsen’s The Devil in the White City, Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers, Paul Harding’s Tinkers, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake—so many. Memories of them well up right now and I want to read something that strong this minute. And write something that strong, either this minute or tomorrow or ever.
A few days ago, I picked up Paulette Jiles’ News of the World—historical novel, setting 1800s, Wichita Falls, Texas. It had been lying by my bed for a while and I opened it at random, probably twenty-five or so pages in, and read a paragraph. I read another. I went to the first page. Then an obligation made me put the book down and live my life for a few days. I couldn’t remember the first page. I wasn’t sure about the conflict. But I knew I wanted to read the book. When I had time last night, I read straight through—fought sleep and hunger to finish it.
Actually, it does have a strong, clear conflict and a skeletal plot. An old soldier, leader, widower accepts the responsibility of returning a kidnapped child to her remaining relatives. She’s nine, fierce, speaks no English, and does not want to go. But that is not the hook. It’s the beautiful realism of the world around that journey, the myriad details about the country, the land, the clothing, language, people, customs, concerns, and the remarkable lack of visible artifice, such as punctuation or cues for shifts of perspective or time. The story unfolds easily from observation and seamless movement from character to effaced narrator. The characters’ dialects are natural, not through butchered spelling, though phonetic spelling illustrates the difference in languages for the hearer—English, German, Kiowa. The characters are intelligent and good. The pacing is steady. And some descriptions make you—me—pause, to see and feel that moment of beauty or insight again.
This is the kind of book I would recommend to a writer who wants to write a good story but who worries about structure and techniques and rules. Love the subject. Write from your heart. Use the best of your language. Then polish.
Admittedly, there are as many kinds of writers as there are writers, probably. But this is an excellent book to read for story and for craft. And for inspiration.