Friday, June 19, 2015

Donald Harstad on Writing

I met up with Donald Harstad in the second floor lounge of the St. Ambrose library. He had been invited to talk about writing and being an author. His specialty is crime fiction and police procedurals set in northeast Iowa.

He sat on a library table and regaled us with a life story that began in Iowa, went to Hollywood, and then returned to Iowa when Hollywood got too strange, too drugged out, and, thanks to Charles Manson, too dangerous to raise his young daughter.

He happened upon a career in law enforcement with his return to Elkader.

His writing career got a kick start when, without warning, he was forced to take earned vacation time. It was a use it or lose it situation that left him home alone. His solution was to write a book—in eleven days. Yes…eleven…long…coffee-fueled days. He used a Commodore 64 computer and 9-dot matrix printer to produce his first book. It was difficult to read and probably would have gone no further if his sister hadn’t finagled a way to get it retyped and distributed among her Hollywood friends and contacts. His lucky break came when an agent took an interest.

Millions of books later…I get to sit in the St. Ambrose library and listen to his advice:

·        Find out what you do well and make it work for you.

·        Stay sober, get some sleep, and be alert.

·        Write 1-3,000 words a day.

·        Begin the next day with a quick edit and then go on.

·        Don’t trip the reader’s “eye.” Keep the writing smooth.

·        Don’t edit dialog. Keep it realistic and brief.

·        Know what people are like.

·        Have your cops keep their fingers beside the trigger and the gun pointed down.

·        Cops will be all business on the job. No one throws up at a crime scene.

·        Cops will not use jargon like “perp,” that’s for wannabe’s. Real cops are thinking and therefore speaking in terms of the reports they’ll have to write up at the end of their shifts.

·        Ditch the agent who’s looking out for himself first.

·        If you have a contract with Double Day—don’t screw it up by going with an independent!

·        London is a great place to stage a murder scene.

·        If you find yourself signing books at the same table Charles Dickens used—have someone take a photo!

His second book took 30-40 days to write. Must have had something to do with all that training writing all those police reports. I can only wish for that kind of speed.

·        A final bit of Harstad advice comes by way of John le CarrĂ©: “Strive to write interesting shit.”

That motto hangs on his office wall above a more modern computer.

Sounds like good advice to me. Can’t wait to read that first book.


  1. Harstad and his daughter shared a bonding experience when they learned to swear in Norwegian by comparing the foreign language version of one his novels to the English. Fun.

  2. Enjoyed this. How can I follow you so I get notices when you post?

  3. Don't know. On your blog I filled out a form and I get email alerts when you post. Mark looked and didn't see that with this one.

  4. Found it. I had to go back into the Design feature. Blogger does make everything easy. Even for folks like me.