So, yeah. One of my favorite authors passed away a week and one day ago (August 20, 2013) at age 87. Born on October 11, 1925 (a fellow Libra), Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, who died due to complications from a stroke, was perhaps the greatest modern day crime fiction writer in American history and a huge influence on writers all across the globe, including me.
He started out writing westerns in the 1950s before switching over to crime fiction in the late 1970s, which was fitting if you consider the fact that crime fiction was pretty much born in the law versus the lawless motif of western fiction.
If the late great Mickey Spillane defined the hardboiled (rogue) detective aspect of fiction for me with his Mike Hammer novels, then it was Elmore Leonard who defined criminals as protagonist aspect of fiction for me with books like Get Shorty, Rum Punch, Out of Sight and Be Cool. All four of those became movies, as did a lot of his other books, but those four left the biggest impression on me in terms of prose, plotting and dialogue.
Good lord, the dialogue. I don’t think there’s a novelist better at delivering the most natural and most realistic dialogue (with a lyrical cadence) via his characters than Leonard. If there’s one thing I’ve managed to do pretty darn well with my own writing, it’s dialogue. Leonard was a huge influence in achieving that. Heck, most every writer of crime fiction was happy to steal little tricks from the maestro (see: Robert B. Parker & Carl Hiaasen).
In 2000 I belonged to an online novel writing workshop called Novel Conceptions with maybe a dozen other new novel writers. It was that summer that I had started writing chapters for what I considered to be a romantic crime novel called A Distant Thunder. Any Leonard fan could read those chapters and see I was doing my best Elmore Leonard impersonation. The voice he used was just that seductive to me that I couldn’t escape it impacting my own as a young writer. Young authors borrow and borrow until they develop a style/voice all their own. In that sense, Mr. Leonard was one of my professors.
A lot of us paid real close attention to his controversial 10 Rules of Writing from a 2001 NY Times article (and later, a book) in which he helped me an other writers stop opening stories and chapters with the weather, simplify our dialogue attributions, go easy on the adverbs, keep our exclamation points to an absolute minimum, and the most important one: rewrite it if it sounds like writing.
Thanks for the words and the memories, Dutch. The literary world (and the film world) has lost one of its sharpest minds and truest voices. You will be missed.