Wednesday, December 2, 2009

How to Write a Novel

First you sit down with a pencil and a piece of paper. A pencil? In this day of PCs and laptops and Alphasmarts? A pencil can’t get you on Twitter or Facebook or Maybe not, but it can jot down all those notes you gather to get started.

John Steinbeck used as many as sixty cedar pencils a day in his writing, and Ernest Hemingway was a major pencil user. I don’t advocate writing your mystery in pencil, but the marvelous little device is a must during the creative process. Look at this neat display of penciled notes on my desk. Okay, neatness isn’t my specialty.

There’s a website called that has all kinds of info on the wooden widget. It notes that the pencil is the only portable, lightweight invention that can draw a line 35 miles long, average 45,000 words and correct its own mistakes.

If you thought it was a latter-day invention, you’re way off the mark. Scribes in ancient Rome wrote on papyrus with metal styluses that left their mark on the forerunner of paper. Some early styluses were made of lead. This led (a little humor there) to calling the legible part of the pencil "lead," although it’s made of graphite.

The first lead stick pencils were wrapped in string. Sort of like those peel-off China markers that will write on most anything. During later times, the lead (or graphite) was inserted in a hollow wooden stick.

Pencils first came into popular use when mass produced in Germany in 1662. The first U.S. pencils were fashioned by a cabinet maker in Concord, Massachusetts after they became unavailable from England because of the War of 1812. Incidentally, Leonardo da Vinci did a lot of pencil sketching. Don’t know how much penciling Dan Brown did while writing Leonardo’s Code.

Meriwether Lewis, the famed explorer of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, carried “1 Set of Small Slates & pencils” on his historic adventure. Which brings us back to mystery writing. My character Sid Chance in The Surest Poison was the former police chief of Lewisville, Tennessee, a fictional small town near the Natchez Trace where Meriwether Lewis died in 1809.

One other note regarding the noted explorer, a small town not far off the Trace named for him, Lewisburg, is home to one of several pencil manufacturers in southern Middle Tennessee. Nearby Shelbyville, better known now for its Walking Horse Celebration, was once called Pencil City. Tennessee became noted for pencil making because of its abundant supply of eastern red cedar, the best wood for writing instruments.

The Shelbyville Pencil Company, which started in 1933, gives their pencils four-to-seven coats of paint and can turn out 400,000 a day. But no doubt the yellow variety called No. 2 is the No. 1 choice of writers.

Now you know how to write a novel. The next question is what do you put in it? Words, of course. And where do you get them? Can you spell t-h-e-s-a-u-r-u-s?

Checking the date on the entry below this one tells me I have neglected this blog the past week or so. I've been holed up working on the next Greg McKenzie mystery. I'll try to do better in coming days. Depends on how well the new book, tentatively titled A Sporting Murder, plays out.


Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Sixty pencils a day! Wow! I very seldom use a pencil, but I found this information very interesting. Maybe I'll buy a package of pencils tomorrow and see if they improve my writing!

Chester Campbell said...

I frequently use pencils for writing notes. When writing books, I find the computer much more handy.

Anonymous said...

Cool! Thanks for the history lesson, Chester. I use graphite pencils all the time with my drawings and never bothered to study their history.

kanishk said...

Love your character interviews

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