This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (3,070) on Friday, November 3, 2023.
Last week, I shared some of the basic principles/techniques that I would try to teach my writing students. This week, I share the single most important piece of advice that I could give to students to improve their writing immediately:
Pay attention to your verbs.
If you are using a lot of linking verbs (is, was, were, etc.), your writing sits without much life on the page. If you use active, descriptive verbs, your writing soars into the reader’s brain and imagination.
Verbs drive the language forward like the engine drives the train. Pay attention to your verbs.
Meanwhile, have a great and literate weekend.
Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 3,097 subscribers and had a 36.5 percent open rate; 6 persons unsubscribed.
Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.
Philo Vance, Lord Peter Wimsey’s “American cousin”
Lord Peter Wimsey, the eccentric, aristocratic sleuth created by mid-20th century mystery master Dorothy L. Sayers, is a well-known figure to most detective novel readers. Like his author, he is a figure of some controversy, even though he was created nearly a century ago, and his creator has been dead for decades.
Some readers enjoy Wimsey’s unique approach to his cases, and others find him annoying to insufferable.
Most modern readers have never heard of him, even though during the 1920s and 1930s Vance was arguably the most popular fictional character on the planet.
So who was Philo Vance and why did he disappear from our literary consciousness?
Vance is a highly intelligent dandy, with a vast knowledge of art, literature, and psychology. As a skilled amateur detective, he had a knack for solving complex puzzles and exposing the truth.
Vance was a creation of S. S. Van Dine, a pen name for Willard Huntington Wright (October 15, 1888 – April 11, 1939). Wright was an American art critic born in Charlottesville, Virginia. He studied at Harvard University, Pomona College, and St. Vincent College. After graduating from Harvard, he moved to New York City and began a career as a writer and editor.
In 1907, Wright became the literary editor of the Los Angeles Times. In 1912, he moved to New York City to become the editor of Town Topics and The Smart Set. He remained the editor of The Smart Set until 1914.
In 1923, Wright suffered a nervous breakdown and was confined to bed for two years. During this time, he read extensively about detective fiction. After recovering from his breakdown, he decided to write his own detective novel.
Vance made his first appearance in Van Dine’s 1926 novel, The Benson Murder Case. The novel was a critical and commercial success, and Vance quickly became one of the most popular detectives in fiction. The second Vance novel, The Canary Murder Case, was even more popular than the first and stayed on the bestseller lists for months.
Van Dine wrote ten more Vance novels, all of which were bestsellers.
Vance was a significant figure in the development of the mystery genre. Vance often ridiculed his friends on the police force (who showed incredible patience with him) and openly scoffed at the importance of clues and physical evidence. Vance’s reliance on intellect, psychology, and logic to solve crimes also helped to elevate the mystery genre from pulp fiction to mainstream literature.
Vance’s popularity also helped to popularize the “impossible crime” mystery subgenre. Impossible crimes are those that seem to defy physical possibility, such as a murder in a locked room or a vanishing body. Vance’s novels often featured complex and seemingly impossible crimes, which he solved through careful deduction and analysis.
In addition to his significance for the mystery genre, Vance is also a notable figure in American culture. He was one of the first American literary characters to be portrayed as a dandy. His love of luxury and his appreciation for the finer things in life helped to create a new image of the American man.
Vance was also a popular figure in film and radio. He was portrayed by actors such as Warren William, Basil Rathbone, and William Powell in a series of movies and radio shows.
Vance shared many of the characteristics of Lord Peter Wimsey, including the fact that he could be highly annoying. Poet Ogden Nash famously summed him up with this two-liner: “Philo Vannce/Needs a kick in the pance.”
The Philo Vance phenomenon ended soon after the death of Van Dine at the age of 50 in 1939. His star was obscured by the emergence of Everyman characters such as Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. (Spade’s creator, Dashiell Hammett, detested Philo Vance.)
Still, Vance should be given his due. British detective historian Julian Symons, writing about the novels of Van Dine, says, “In their outrageous cleverness, their disdainful disregard of everything except the detective and the puzzle, they are among the finest fruits of the Golden Age.”
Next week: Van Dine’s 20 rules for writing detective fiction
Leonardo’s journals: A large window into the mind of a genius
The mind of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) still fascinates observers even after 500 years.
He was interested in so many things, and he observed the world with the mind and attitude of a scientist, mechanic, inventor, naturalist, and philosopher. He was also a writer. And an artist, of course.
We know about Leonardo’s mind because he kept journals. He wrote down everything he observed; he drew—small drawings and large—to remind himself of what he had seen or to try to figure out what he was observing. He carried around a small sketchbook on his belt and drew and wrote in it constantly.
He drew out his ideas for inventions or improvements in the mechanical implements of 15th century life. He sketched preliminary drawings for paintings he was commissioned to execute. For a time, he was the “producer” for one of his employers; that is, he was in charge of costumes, parades, and theatrical productions—a very important part of court life during that time—and many of his drawings relate to ideas about how to stage those events.
He drew maps and military weapons. He drew babies in a mother’s womb. He drew cats, horses, and strange-looking people.
Nothing, it seems, escaped his notice.
Biographer Walter Isaacson (author of the biography Leonard da Vinci) writes that there are about 7,200 pages of Leonardo’s journals in existence in library and museum collections around the world. This is an astonishingly large collection. Yet these pages, Isaacson says, represent probably only about 25 percent of what he actually produced.
We wish we had more of them. But we are grateful for what we have.
When Leonardo died at the age of 67, he left only about 20 finished paintings; he left many paintings, projects, and ideas that were started but never completed. Leonardo knew the value of inspiration; he knew that knowledge, observation, and the spark of an idea could be fleeting. He wanted to capture as many of those as he could.
It was as if he received little satisfaction from completion—from having someone say, “That’s a job well done.”
See also on JPROF:
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Group giveaways for November
Kill the Quarterback and Murder Most Criminous are part of several group giveaways this month:
Each of these giveaways includes more than 20 books of various sub-genres. You can download any or all of them in exchange for your email address. The email address will be shared among all authors participating in the giveaway. The purpose of these giveaways is to get books into the hands of readers and to increase email lists for the authors.
Vietnam Voices, volume 1
A few weeks ago, we announced the publication of volume 4 of our Vietnam Voices project. That volume signals the end of the four-year-long project that I have been a part of for the Blount County Public Library. The project began as an audio archive that gathered stories from East Tennesseans who had served in Vietnam, but it quickly grew into a series of publications that are now available on Amazon.
- A young infantryman, a “grunt,” spends weeks on patrol among the rice paddies of Vietnam and comes to regard it as “normal.”
- An artillery lieutenant leads a patrol into the jungle so that he can call in artillery strikes to protect his unit.
- An airman, on the day he returns from Vietnam, is accosted in a commercial airport by a civilian who calls him a “baby killer” and spits on him.
- A Marine, 18 years old, quotes the 23rd Psalm as he walks through the jungle with this company at night.
These are just a few of the many stories told by East Tennesseans who served during the 10-year conflict that we now call simply “Vietnam.” The word resounds with memories for every American who was alive and aware during that time.
The memories of those who served there as members of the United States armed forces are especially important for us today because we must not forget their efforts and their sacrifice.
That is why the Blount County Public Library and the Friends of the Blount County Public Library have undertaken this Vietnam Voices project. Our goal has been to interview and record the stories of as many Vietnam veterans as possible. The audio interviews on which the chapters in this book are based are available at the library.
From the archives: The world’s most nutritious foods: relax, you’re probably eating some of them
I don’t usually venture into the realms of food and its preparation (above my pay grade, I am told), but I thought this was interesting. On the British Broadcasting Corporation site a couple of weeks ago was a listing of the 100 most nutritious foods based on research done by scientists and compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The listing begins with Number 100 and goes down to Number 1. I didn’t have the patience to go through the entire list to begin with so I scrolled down to find out the top 10 or so. (SEMI-SPOILER ALERT) Here are the top dozen, but they are listed in alphabetical order, so if you want to know the winner, you’ll have to go to the site: almonds, beet greens, celery flakes, cherimoya, chia seeds, dried parsley, flatfish, ocean perch, pork fat, pumpkin seeds, snapper, and Swiss chard.
And the others on the list? Relax, you’re probably already eating some of them.
And here is the link to the scientific article on which the story is based. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.137…
Vince V.: One of my prized possessions is a 1969 book published by John Steinbeck’s estate titled Journal of a Novel in which he describes the day-by-day writing of East of Eden. Many are surprised to learn that Steinbeck was also an inveterate tinkerer and woodworker. On the cover of Journal of a Novel is a wooden box he carved to hold his notes to his editor and his first draft of East of Eden, a book I greatly admired.
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, England
Best quote of the week:
Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art. Eleanor Roosevelt, diplomat and writer (1884-1962)
Grace for All: A daily devotional podcast
One of the great privileges I have had over the last few months is working with a dedicated group of folks to produce a daily devotional podcast series for 1st United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee.
Our first season (15 episodes, plus maybe a bonus one or two) is up and running now and can be heard at https://1stchurch.org/podcast or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple, Spotify, Google, etc.). The episodes are about five minutes and are meant to enlighten and inspire.
The episodes are also on YouTube, if that is your preferred way of receiving these things.
If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, trypray-as-you-go.org. The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.
Helping those in need
Earthquakes in Turkey, fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee: disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: Rules for writing, the great John Steinbeck, and the second volume in the Vietnam Voices series: newsletter, October 27, 2023
Get a FREE copy of Kill the Quarterback
Get a free digital copy of Jim Stovall's mystery novel, Kill the Quarterback. You will also get Jim's newsletter and advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. Jim likes to stay in touch, so sign up today.