When you get stuck, just write like Truman Capote
March 11, 2013
I still remember vividly the movie version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It remains in my mind as the most chilling portrayal of real-life evil I have seen.
What made the movie so gripping was it’s realism, the notion that people existed in this world who would as easily kill you as draw their next breath.
Truman Capote, born in New Orleans in 1924, twice won the O. Henry Memorial Short Story Prize and was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. But he was probably most famous for inventing a new literary genre, what is now referred to as narrative non-fiction.
When you read In Cold Blood, you are transported into a world of actual persons and places that somehow are more than simple locations on a map. They become the stage on which a universal drama plays out, a story of good versus evil, where the end leaves you not fulfilled but perplexed.
In another life, on a strange mission with a former ex-con, I happened to visit the Kansas state prison where the drama portrayed in Capote’s book finally played out on a gallows in gymnasium looking room, bleak and cavernous. The scene was as he described, which drove home the utter hopelessness that permeates each page of In Cold Blood.
In these occasional blogs, I am pointing readers and writers to passages from books revered as the best of the best.
If novels are known for their fantasy, their ability to take you somewhere that may exist or may not, narrative non-fiction is equally well-known for its groundedness in a particular time and place.
It is fitting then that Capote kicks off In Cold Blood with a description of the village of Holcomb.
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.
It is the matter of factness of this first view of Holcomb that sets the scene for the terror to come. If the town were more abnormal, we could make ourselves believe something horrible should occur there. But when Capote shows us how ordinary and mundane Holcomb is, we tell ourselves it is a place beyond horror.
But we are wrong.
(Stephen Woodfin is an attorney and author of legal thrillers.)