Friday, November 13, 2009

Howard Browne on Words and Writing

Before he was writing Halo for Satan, Halo in Blood, and The Taste of Ashes, Howard Browne was like the rest of us (well, maybe his life was a little more colorful and exciting than mine -- ok, a lot more). In his own words, here is the inauspicious beginning of Howard Browne's career as a writer.

In 1937 I was in my early thirties, and I told my wife, "I'm going to be a rich and famous writer."

She laughed, saying, "You never finished high school . . . "

"I can read – I figure I can write," was my reply. I had read Jack Woodford's Trial and Error, a book about how to become a professional writer, in which he makes it look so easy, and he said the easiest people in the world to write for were the newspaper syndicates -- if you could spell correctly, they'd buy it.

I'd seen that in the Chicago Daily News they ran a daily short story -- a thousand words. I thought, lemme try it, I ought to be able to write a simple little plot, and I wrote a couple. I wrote them in longhand, but had my secretary type them up at the office. I sent them to Pat Lowry, and soon had a phone call telling me to come in and see him. I thought maybe I'd plagiarized something unconsciously, but I went in to see him. He said, "I'm buying these two stories, and I'll pay you $15 a piece, but don't write any more for me." The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

I said, "Why not?"

He said, "You write too well for this market -- try the pulp magazines."

I went home and thought, "Pulps? Fuck that, I'll write a novel!" I'd been an avid reader of Edgar Rice Burroughs, so I thought, hell, I'll write a Tarzan story -- I know 'em backwards. But I had to prepare myself for it. I took his books and made lists of adjectives -- describing jungle, describing animals, action, etc. -- and I categorized them. So, if I'm writing and I want to describe the jungle, I turn to this list of fine adjectives -- I handled it like I'd handle a problem in school! And I wrote Warrior of the Dawn – it took me 52 Sundays, because that was the only day of the week I had the time to write. A local bookseller, Max Siegel, sent it to a publisher, and he got ahold of the publisher's reader's report, the opening line of which was: "Take the typewriter away from this man before he hurts himself." Now that doesn't exactly fill you with confidence! Then it got nasty. I could have killed the guy. His name was Lawrence Dwight Smith. Later on I wrote a book in which I killed off a Lawrence Dwight Favelle, so I got him.

--Howard Browne, "A Brief Memoir"


  1. Howard wrote for Mystery Scene occasionally back when I was editing it. We had some fine old conversations. I'd grown up reading Amazing and Fantastic, the two Ziff-Davis magazines he edited before going to Hollywood. Howard hated Amazing; he hated all sf. He was a very generous, decent man and a fine writer who never quite got his due. Our conversations changed after his wife died. He was adrift, at least for the time I knew him then. I said maybe he'd feel better if he worked on a book but he told me that he was through with writing. I lost touch with him the last two years of his life. A talented, warm and amiable man.

  2. LOL. Interesting stuff. I'm not very familiar with Browne

  3. "Halo in Brass" was the first PI novel I read that wasn't authored by Hammett or Chandler. It was good enough for me to seek out as many of Browne's books as I could afford (no "Paper Gun" for me so far). It took me three years to find "The Taste of Ashes" before the days of internet. It's one of the best PI novels ever. And Dennis McMillan was great for bringing him back into print.

  4. H. Browne brought first class plots to detective fiction. (I remember a Paul Pine novel where a vital clue was obtained when our hero throws a cigarette pack to the villain who opens up his legs to catch it!)
    But, more than Halo books, I think "Thin Air" was his best novel. The disappearance of the wife, so incredible, and yet, so reasonably explained at the end. It was revolutionary at those ages.
    Now, all the more amazing, when you learn that Browne had not much formal education.


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