Musing On Writing, Pt 1 of Series of 3 Million

  • by Gitabushi

I’m currently reading “Date with Darkness” by Donald Hamilton.


I’m beginning to think Donald Hamilton* might be my favorite writer of all.  You really should read his work. Dark at times, the protagonist is always pragmatic, sometimes to the point of brutality.  But it works.  The protagonist is always a hero…it’s just that sometimes his principles do not allow him to be the Gentlemen he prefers to be.  If that makes sense.

Anyway, in “Date with Darkness”, there is a low-level menace surrounding a vulnerable damsel.  There is no direct threat of death, much less violence.  Yet there is an undercurrent of both, like a steaming volcano set to erupt.

At the point I want to draw attention to, however, everything is still quiet, all the troubles are still only potential.

The protagonist faces the antagonists on a train, with all pretense dropped.  Important information is given.

And then he skips to the next scene.

What else happened?  What else did they talk about?  How did he get out of the face-off?  Did he just say “See you around!” and leave?  Did they leave?  How did he get through the next several hours on the train with the antagonists present (even without overt hostilities)?  Why didn’t he try to pump more information out of them?  Why didn’t they try to pump more information out of him?

So many questions.  All ignored. And for some reason, it works.

I think I would have screwed that up.  I think it would have been a sticking point in my writing, and attempting to resolve it, would have created a weak point in my story. Or, not knowing how to resolve it, I would have decided I had painted myself into a corner and abandoned the story.

In a short story I recently wrote, I cheated.  I left an important issue unexplained. I put a bare fig leaf to cover the omission with the throwaway line of “there have been so many changes”

One or two people had a problem with my sleight of hand. And sure, it could have been done better.  But three or four others had no objection at all, even resolving that problem with their own explanation, and probably far better than anything I could have suggested. And, perhaps more importantly, each personal resolution was different.

In writing a story, you need to tell that story (duh). You need to put words on paper that explain the action, thinking, motivation, implications, etc., of the story and its development.  This is positive space.

But in art, there is also negative space.  What you leave out can often be as important as what you put in.  Some very effective paintings don’t have borders, or don’t take the image all the way to the borders.  Some spaces are defined not by their own edges, but by the edges of the objects around them.

I think that’s what Hamilton did.  There are certain things the reader needs to know to propel the story forward.  There are things they don’t need to know, that would bog down the story.  Sure, that’s obvious.  You don’t include detailed accounts of characters going to the bathroom, normally.

But knowing how to apply that suddenly doesn’t seem as straightforward to me as it did just a few days ago.

I really need to think about this.

*Donald Hamilton is known, of course, for the Matt Helm series…when he is known at all. Matt Helm is a spy’s spy. Just so much better than James Bond could ever hope to be. The novels are twisty and tricky. Sometimes a mystery, often action-filled, things happen throughout the novels you simply don’t expect.

And then they ruined the reputation by making a parody of the character with a drunken Dean Martin.  His films use the Matt Helm name to parody the 60s’ secret agent guy every bit as much as Austin Powers did.  It sucks to have such a great character and such a great series slimed by such a shoddy treatment.

I recommend you try to get “Death of a Citizen” by Donald Hamilton.  If you like that, you’ll like everything Hamilton writes, I think.  Or if you want a more heroic hero, try “Assassins have Starry Eyes,” “The Steel Mirror,” or “Date with Darkness”.


6 thoughts on “Musing On Writing, Pt 1 of Series of 3 Million

    1. He wrote like 3 or 4 other novels, 3 or 4 short stories, and 25+ Matt Helm novels, so it’s not surprising.
      But he’s pretty good. Try him out if you find any.

      The thing is, I also found at least 3 different “how to write stuff” articles from him, so at one point he must have been respected as an author.

      I gotta tell you, I can’t remember another writer with plots as complex and satisfying as his. And when you add in the complexity of Matt, and how it plays out in oddly unexpected ways….every book seems like a masterclass, to me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When I run out of medieval mystery books, probably in 2020 [I’ve got sister freyalise, or somehting like that on tap after cadfael] I might plug in this series to keep things fresh in my rotation.


      2. Hard to find. The paperbacks are all moldering and falling apart, scattered across a thousand garage sales. I’m not sure you can even find them at half-price bookstores much anymore.
        Hope you do, though. I think you’d be pleasantly surprised with the writing.

        Liked by 1 person

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