Louis L’Amour is one of America’s most popular authors, with more than 100 books to his credit, all of which are still in print, and almost all of which have sold more than a million copies.
For my last birthday, my daughter gave me a copy of Down the Long Hills, the story of seven-year-0ld Hardy Collins, three-year-old Betty Sue Powell, and Hardy’s horse, Big Red. They are the sole survivors of the massacre of a party of settlers, and now they’re alone in the wilderness of the Wyoming Territory.
So what can Louis L’Amour teach a writer?
Don’t waste the reader’s time. Here’s the opening of Down the Long Hills:
When Hardy Collins woke up, Big Red was gone. Hardy had picketed the stallion himself, and with sudden guilt he remembered that in his hurry to return to the supper fire he had struck the picket-pin only a couple of sharp blows.
He knew the horse was gone because from where he lay he could have seen its outline against the sky. He lay still for a minute or two, his heart pounding, frightened by what had happened.
Red embers remained of the cooking fire. . . . A coyote talked to the moon. In the wagon above him Mrs. Andy stirred in her sleep.
L’Amour doesn’t spend any time setting the stage for us; he launches right into his story and lets us work things out ourselves from the clues in the narrative.
We don’t know who Hardy Collins or Big Red are, but we’re immediately launched into their story. And L’Amour knew that readers don’t need to know everything right away to be interested in the story.
For now, it’s enough to know just a few things: Hardy had been sleeping outside, others are sleeping nearby, it’s apparently still dark, and Hardy feels guilty about his failure to picket his horse securely. L’Amour keeps adding details as the story progresses, letting us put together the background of the story as we go.
Keep it simple. L’Amour doesn’t use big words or complex sentence structure. Here’s a paragraph from early in the story:
At last they came to a high place, and the long brown land lay before them in all its endless distance, miles upon miles of vast prairie, with nothing to be seen on it anywhere. And then, searching the land again, he did see something—between distant hills a smudge of blue, edged by green.
A paragraph of two sentences, with fifty-five words, only one of which is more than two syllables. This paragraph is at a 10th grade reading level (using the Flesch-Kincaid grade level formula), with a Flesch Reading Ease score of 72.7 (on a scale of 0-100; higher Flesch Reading Ease scores indicate easier reading). (For an introduction to these readability measurements, see this Wikipedia article.)
Judging by L’Amour’s publication history and continued popularity, his simple language was not a drawback.
Simple doesn’t mean drab. Simple language does not have to be of the “See Dick run” sort. Later in the story, when Hardy and Betty Sue are camping by a slough, L’Amour paints this picture of nightfall:
The light faded and the stars came out. Wind ruffled the darkening steel of the water.
Simple language, yes, and yet a striking, beautiful way of calling up the reader’s memories of what a still body of water looks like as the light is fading.
The scene continues, shortly after Betty Sue has fallen asleep:
It grew cold, and he was tired. He lay down close to Betty Sue and wished the coat were big enough to cover them both. The stars looked like lamps in far-off houses.
The simplicity works because L’Amour knows that his readers probably can put themselves in Hardy’s place. We’ve all been cold and tired, wishing to share a bit of warmth with someone. And the description of stars looking like “lamps in far-off houses” underscores the children’s isolation.
There you have it—Three writing tips from Louis L’Amour:
- Don’t waste the reader’s time.
- Keep it simple.
- Simple doesn’t mean drab.
Your turn: What have you learned from your favorite writer?