01 February 2020

Literary Trivia, Recycled

Since I was in a reminiscing mood the other day--and since I was having trouble coming up with an idea for today's column--I took a look at what I'd posted exactly ten years ago at the Criminal Brief mystery blog (the predecessor to SleuthSayers). Oddly enough, my subject that day was one I was discussing with a friend just last week: trivia about writers.

I have taken the liberty of re-posting that piece of nonsense here. You'll see some things that might be a bit off, including my mention of a couple of authors in the present tense who have since died and at least one research mistake (Christie did NOT kill off Miss Marple in Sleeping Murder, as my source said she did)--but I hope you might find a few interesting facts here. I know one thing for sure: our odd fascination with trivial details will always be around. 

Anyhow, here's that old column. Where'd all that time go . . . ? 

INSIDE INFO, by John M. Floyd

Saturday, January 30, 2010

(Yes, I know this isn't EXACTLY ten years ago--but it's close.)

I like trivia. I always have. I think it's fun to discover little-known and often useless facts about the people and places and things that share our world. Who knows, maybe it's fun because it is useless: the pursuit of meaningless information is more like play than work, and we have plenty enough work in our lives.

Stalking the rich and famous

Apparently I'm not alone in my fondness for unimportant details. We all know how the general public loves to get the skinny on celebrities and their antics. There seems to be no end to the number of fans who want to know what J-Lo wore to her premiere last night or what kind of cereal George Clooney eats for breakfast.

I can understand that, in a way. I like finding out that Sinatra was the producers' first choice to play Dirty Harry, and that E.T.'s voice was really Debra Winger's. But I'm also interested in another area of trivia: writers, and their backgrounds and habits. Because of that, I keep an eye open (both of them, occasionally) for little tidbits that shed more light on the sometimes secret lives of authors.

The quirks of Shakespeare

Here are some of those pieces of information that I've picked up and stored away in notebooks over the years. I can't remember where I found most of them, but at least a few came from a book called Writing the Popular Novel, by Loren Estleman. He calls them "Fiction Facts":

- At one point, Mickey Spillane was the author of seven of the ten best-selling novels of all time.

- F. Scott Fitzgerald kept track of his plotlines by pinning the drafts of his chapters up on his walls.

- When J. K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel, she typed three separate copies because she couldn't afford copying fees.

- Ian Fleming named his main character after reading a book called Birds of the West Indies, by James Bond. He liked the name because he considered it dull and bland and therefore appropriate for a secret agent.

- While serving as president of Anderson Manufacturing, Sherwood Anderson abruptly walked out of his office one day to pursue a career as an author (good for him!). Also in the "odd exit" department: Years later, Anderson died from peritonitis after swallowing a toothpick hidden in an hors d'oeuvre.

- Agatha Christie, who was convinced that others might exploit two of her main characters after her death, killed them off in two books--Jane Marple in Sleeping Murder and Hercule Poirot in Curtain--and arranged to have them published posthumously.

- Jack London once ran for mayor of Oakland, California, on the Social Party ticket; Upton Sinclair once ran for governor of California.

- In 1939 Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a 50,000-word novel called Gadsby without ever using the letter "e."

- The prolific John Creasey is said to have written his first published novel on the backs of more than seven hundred rejection letters.

- Jack Kerouac mounted a continuous roll of teletype paper above his typewriter so he wouldn't have to crank in new sheets.

- Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow's literary heritage: a number of Bonnie's poems were accepted and published in newspapers in 1933, while she was eluding the FBI--and a letter from Clyde to Henry Ford, praising the Ford as a getaway car, is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

- When asked what one of his stories meant, William Faulkner once replied, "How should I know? I was drunk when I wrote it."

- Erle Stanley Gardner dictated his books orally.

- Arthur Conan Doyle was an ophthalmologist; since it didn't pay particularly well, he took up writing only as a way to make ends meet.

- Frankly, my dear, Margaret Mitchell wrote the ending of Gone With the Wind first and wrote the opening only after the book was accepted for publication, ten years later.

- Both Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain liked to write lying down, Ben Franklin and Vladimir Nabokov often wrote while in the bathtub, and Lewis Carroll and Ernest Hemingway (after injuring his back in a plane crash) wrote standing up.

- Rescued at the last moment: Tabitha King retrieved Carrie from her husband's wastebasket (the Kings were almost starving at the time), and the son of Leo Tolstoy fished the discarded manuscript of War and Peace out of a drainage ditch.

- Elmore Leonard writes everything in longhand, on yellow legal pads.

- Six-foot-six Thomas Wolfe also preferred to write standing up, using the top of his refrigerator for a desk.

- Charles Dickens's dream was to be a comic actor. Thankfully, he wasn't very good at it and decided on another career instead.

- J. D. Salinger sometimes avoids interruptions by writing in a concrete bunker near his home.

- It is said that Hemingway's simple, terse style came from the fact that he had memorized the King James version of the Bible and could recite it by heart.

- Stephen King wrote the first pages of Misery in a London hotel at a desk that had belonged to Rudyard Kipling.

- Switching horses in midstream: Janet Evanovich started out writing romances, Elmore Leonard started with Westerns, Lawrence Block started with erotica. And both James Dickey (Deliverance) and James Harrison (Legends of the Fall) published poetry long before they published fiction.

- William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) got the idea for his pseudonym from a guard, Orrin Henry, who befriended him while he was serving time in prison for embezzlement.

You get the idea: writers are a different breed, and writing itself is a strange occupation. But, as Stephen the Kingster once said, "It's better than having to pay a psychiatrist."

Just as recycling a long-ago column is better than having to dream up a new one. (I promise I'll post one next time that hasn't been previously driven.)

One more piece of trivia, in the where-has-the-time-gone department: Fifty years ago tomorrow, I signed on with IBM, fresh out of college, and stayed there 30 years. Great jumpin' Jiminy.

A final note: In the comments following this original post, that smartaleck Leigh Lundin asked if I could write my next blog post without using the letter "e." My response was: "Of cours I will." (But I didn't. Mayb nxt tim.)

Have a great February.


  1. I love trivia. Good posting, John.

    As for O. Henry, William Sydney Porter gave different accounts on how he came up with the pseudonym. In a NEW YORK TIMES interview in 1909, he claimed he came up with the literary alias in a New Orleans bar with a friend by searching the society column for the names of notables and spotted Henry as a last name and figured 'O' was the easiest letter to write. Besides the prison guard Orrin Henry story, there's the name French pharmacist Etienne Ossian Henry who worked in the prison pharmacy, the theory that O. Henry came from the first two letter of Ohio and second and last letters of penitentiary.

    When (and if) I meet Saint Peter, I plan to ask him two questions. Who was Jack the Ripper and is O. Henry here?

  2. Fun column, John. I always thought John Wayne was originally offered the part of Harry but thought it was too violent or some such. But then when it was a big hit he tried to have his own version with McQ or Brannigan, or something along those lines.

  3. O'Neil, I too had heard about that NYT interview--thanks for mentioning it. I suspect that's the correct explanation. And yes, St. Peter should be able to clear up the Jack the Ripper mystery. Ask him about Jimmy Hoffa, too.

    Paul, it's my understanding that both Wayne and Sinatra were offered that part (and Steve McQueen as well) before it went to Eastwood. My favorite of those might-have-been stories is that Tom Selleck was offered the role of Indiana Jones, but he was doing Magnum, PI, at the time and they wouldn't let him take the part. Fun stuff.

    Thanks, guys, for the early-morning comments.

  4. If I remember correctly, Christie did not kill off Jane Marple in Sleeping Murder, although pre-publications rumors were that she had. There was also a rumor that John D. MacDonald had written a "final" Travis McGee novel to be published only after his death; this rumore was evidently false.

    Dickens may not have made it as a comic actor, but he put his acting chops to good use during his tours and public readings; he was one of the most popular speakers of his time.

    Enjoyed this post.

  5. Jerry, I too had heard about that false rumor regarding MacDonald. And you're right about Christie.

    Thanks for the acting info about Dickens--I didn't know that. I do remember hearing that Stephen King originally had The Green Mile published in six separate installments to imitate the way Dickens did some of his serialized novels.

  6. Love the trivia. I'll add on one that I found: the motive behind the murder in Agatha Christie's "The Mirror Crack'd" was based on a true story that happened Gene Tierney. (Ms. Tierney did not commit a murder, but I think it would have been justifiable homicide.)

  7. Interesting, Eve--yet another fact I didn't know. Thanks.

    Here's a piece of trivia I heard not long ago: Jack Kerouac (of On the Road fame) never learned to drive a car. Whether that's true or not is another story . . .

  8. As I recall, you once did a column omitting a certain letter! And I loved the trivia! Here's a couple more: Young Ray Bradbury once sold comedy material to George Burns! And Gelett Burgess published a collection of his stories anonymously, but the first letter of the first word of every story spelled out "The Author Is Gelett Burgess."

  9. Hey Jeff! I seem to remember reading that someplace, about Bradbury. The man was brilliant, that's for sure. I also think it's interesting that William Faulkner wrote a number of screenplays in Hollywood--it just doesn't seem to fit.

    As for Burgess, I'd never heard that. (I should give that a try--at least I have a short name!)


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>