I’ve been reading a lively story by a dead guy named Charles Willeford. That’s the book cover up there. As you can probably tell, Willeford and his publisher were not political correct.
Please bear with me while I attempt to make him relevant to you and your work today.
“Pick-Up” is about a suicidal drunk named Harry Jordan who attempts to strangle that lush up there and, as a result, finds himself being interviewed by a jailhouse psychiatrist. The good doctor asks Jordan about his sex life and Willeford’s character doesn’t care for that line of questioning. “I was as high-keyed and ill-strung as a Chinese musical instrument,” the protagonist thinks to himself.
That phrase literally stopped me. I mean I loved it. I dropped the book and scribbled it into a notebook. It struck me as incredibly evocative and I instantly knew exactly how that character felt. I was completely mesmerized by that image of the “ill-strung” Chinese instrument. I could actually hear that feeling.
The next day I thought it might be a little racist. Is it OK to compare your own dissonance to the sound of another culture’s music? The day after that, I concluded that the phrase was just right for that book at that time, but perhaps wouldn’t work in any other context. …
When I say we have a lot to learn from good writers, even long-forgotten B-novelists like Willeford, I don’t mean that we are looking for similes to copy and paste into our own work. What I mean is that, by reading fiction, you fold yourself into a particular rhythm and pace. You see where similes like Willeford’s work and where using them would be “harder than Chinese algebra,” to steal a similarly dubious phrase from songwriter Tom Waits.
I highly recommend reading mid-century crime writers like Willeford and Jim Thompson. There is a reason why dozens of these books have been made into modern movies. Those guys knew how to propel a story. Which is another lesson learned.