Write Hacks 10: ISO a Book

by Brenda W. Clough

Reymerswaele_Two_tax_collectors_(detail) I got this hack from the great Greg Feeley. I was writing a novel, as usual, and I found myself in need of a book title. A fictional one, but it had to sound right. I needed an uplifting biography of a clergyman or minor political figure. The title had to sound deadly dull, and utterly Victorian. The kind of book you find in the far back corners of used book stores under a pile of National Geographics. The kind of volume designers put onto the display bookshelves in furniture stores because the binding looks old and fits into the color scheme. The kind of book that was long ago culled out of  your local library because no one has checked it out for forty years.

This is more difficult than you would think. By definition it’s not in the library and not in the used book store, right? Googling on ‘biography’ and the proper period simply rakes up biographies of the notables of that period, George Washington or Benjamin Disraeli or whoever. Adding the term ‘boring’ does not  help, nor ‘dull’. I needed to survey a large number of titles of exactly the right time period and subject, so as to cobble together a fake title of my own of the right level of stultifying.

Greg supplied the answer: Abe Books, the used-bookselling online marketplace. Go here and click on the “More Search Options” button. This allows you to sharply limit the parameters of the search, and the one that you want is ‘year range’. I put in 1840 to 1890, and the word ‘biography’ into the title window, and wow! My eyes positively glaze over, at the boring biographies that kick up!

How about this one: Scots Worthies : Their Lives and Testimonies : with an Historical Introduction and Appendix. Also a Supplement containing Memoirs and Historical Sketches of Ladies of the Covenant. Or this one, maybe it’s even better: The Illustrated Album of Biography, Containing Biographical Sketches of Hundreds of Prominent Minnesota Settlers and Representative Citizens, with a Review of their Life Work, their Identity with the Growth and Development of This Region, and Reminiscences of Personal History and Pioneer Life.

You can feel it, right? It’s perfect. You’re getting rigid with boredom. You would slash your wrists, before actually reading this thing. (The Illustrated Album costs $187 on Abe, so you will likely not ever face this prospect.) There are dozens of pages of these biographies, each one worse than the next. To slice and dice and whip up my very own boring biography for my heroine to throw across the room is but the work of a moment!




Write Hacks 10: ISO a Book — 3 Comments

  1. It depends. Part of the fascination of the genre exemplified by the Minnesota volume was having YOUR story recorded in print, not to mention the fun of discussing how well the entries of neighboring subscribers jibed with local gossip. (Some books of ‘Biographical Sketches’ are still reprinted by local historical societies, to the delight of genealogists.) If the heroine has Minnesota connections or a taste for local history and legend, she might be intrigued.

    • Oh, for sure. Every book has one or two readers.The book my heroine is reading was self-published by the widow of the deceased, so not only is it deadly dull, it’s adulatory and uncritical to boot.