When you get stuck, just write like Truman Capote

IN Cold Blood


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.

Truman Capote
Truman Capote

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.)

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  • Truman was a strange phenomenon. He lived like a cartoon character, but, Lord, how he could write, although I though his later works were devoid of his passion for words. His early work is to be studied by everyone who thinks they are a writer and wants to write.

  • As a kid/teenager they couldn’t get me to read. Against her better judgement, my sweet little ol’ mother brought home In Cold Blood from the Library. I was hooked and it started a life-long interest in reading True Crime and I have an extensive library. In Cold Blood was of course a masterpiece of writing and many had success in copying Truman’s fiction- written-as-fact/fact-written-as-fiction formula. When I had finished reading ICB as a teenager, my mother asked me with a wry smile: “Do you remember when we went on the family vacation to Colorado? We stayed at the Sands Motel on the way out there, in GC, Kansas. Well, THAT is where Truman Capote later stayed when he researched the book.”
    This DID get my attention. Maybe it was in the very same room ;- D I did start reading more after this, often macabre subject matter which often gives me a “scairdy cat” view of life, but sometimes I crossed over and read less menacing tales. Mama was no fool–but, I would often like to get rid of the scairdy cat!

    • Sara, great comment. I believe it underscores everything about the world Capote displayed in ICB. He made all of us scaredy cats.

      • Thanks, Stephen. I am addicted to reading this macabre stuff but I am always looking over my shoulder, and have over-active (selective, also) hearling.

        • Trumans, THE GLASS HOUSE, which appeared dramatized on television also impacted me greatly–sure you saw THAT!

  • Tim Greaton

    Another great post, Stephen, and you have chosen a person of study who could and has been referenced for his genius hundreds of thousands of times. His work was sparkling at times, and he was as original and memorable a character as has ever graced the pages of the best novels. I would say more but I must get back to my “Capote Paragraph,” you know, the one I started twenty years ago.

    • Tim, thanks. I bet you can finish that paragraph. Good things come to those who wait.

  • My favorite memory of Capote was an appearance he made on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, when he announced that all actors are dumb. The better they are at acting, the dumber they are. Carson had him return the next night to debate the point with George C. Scott and another famous actor (I can’t remember who) and he proved himself correct.

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