Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Writers to learn from: James Lee Burke

I'm convinced you can't write well unless you read books by writers who have figured it out and learn from them. Classic writers like Hemingway and Faulkner and Wolfe and Steinbeck. Present day writers like Michael Connelly, Nelson DeMille, C.J. Box, Lee Child, Stephen King and Robert Crais. All very different. All highly accomplished. All able to touch something human in us that goes beyond adventure and trouble and crime and spies and bad guys and good guys and all that.

I'm a big fan of James Lee Burke. I've read all of his Dave Robicheaux novels. I just finished Feast Day of Fools, Burke's latest in a series featuring an aging, small town Texas sheriff named Hackberry Holland.

So, what's so great about Burke's writing? What can I (and maybe you) learn from reading a book about dysfunctional, psychopathic characters who consistently carry out brutal and heinous acts as a routine day's work? Why would we want to read about people like this?

Because Burke is much more than a creative writer with the required skill sets of crafted scenes, powerful dialogue and twisting plots. He's a master at revealing the human heart and the demons that reside within all of us. He's an absolute master of natural description, immersing the reader in the desert harshness of Mexico and Texas or the lush coast of Louisiana or the hard streets of New Orleans. He's a master at revealing the depths of a character in a simple paragraph, of choosing exactly the right words.

Here's an example from Feast Day of Fools. Hackberry Holland, Burke's protagonist, is watching his deputy Pam Tibbs at a crime scene.

In moments like these, when she was totally unguarded and unmindful of herself, Hackberry knew in a private place in the back of his mind that Pam Tibbs belonged to that category of exceptional women whose beauty radiated outward through their skin and had little to do with the physical attributes of their birth. In these moments he felt an undefined longing in his heart that he refused to recognize.

It paints an instant picture of Pam Tibbs. From prior parts of the book we know she's not beautiful in the conventional sense. Burke could have just said she wasn't particularly pretty, not that her beauty had little to do with the physical attributes of her birth. I think the ability to describe a character with a phrase like this is as good as it gets for a writer. To me, it borders on genius.

The paragraph reveals Hackberry. It tells us the essence of who he is. He longs for connection he cannot define. More, he refuses to acknowledge it's there. He must control his emotions or things might turn bad for him. He fears their power.

Two characters defined. All in seventy words.

Hackberry, over seventy years old, struggles with unresolved feelings about Pam, who is half his age. Along with the dangerous and evil characters Burke spreads across the pages, we find ourselves engaged with a protagonist aware he is long past his prime, taking it one day at a time, struggling with unexpressed and powerful emotions and doing the best he can to see that justice is done.

Dave Robicheaux is another character any aspiring writer can learn from. He's gentle and full of love for his wives (they get killed every now and then) and his adopted daughter, Alafair. He's full of destructive anger that comes raging out past the walls of polite manners he's built to contain it. He's from a nightmare of a dysfunctional family that was laced with love, sex and alcohol. He's driven by demons many of us might find familiar. He's a Vietnam Vet. He struggles to stay sober and sometimes he slips. He has deep integrity. He cares. He seeks and believes in social justice. He sees Confederate ghosts slipping through the mists of the Bayou.

One hell of a character. Read James Lee Burke and learn.


  1. Something wrong here, won't take my Google account so lets try this again.
    Great post Alex. Have read all of James Lee Burke, but haven't managed to emulate his descriptive style.
    Nash Black

  2. "a book about dysfunctional, psychopathic characters who consistently carry out brutal and heinous acts as a routine day's work"--Hey, that's my kind of book.

    You said it all--it shows creativity, well-crafted scenes, powerful dialogue and twisting plots. Readers identify with the demons that reside within and characters written with depth.


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