Friday, February 4, 2011

Inspiration for Beginning a Book

By Bill Furlow

In a recent post, we mentioned that author John Irving said it often takes him seven months to a year to develop the first sentence of a novel.

I don't know how long it took my friend and former boss Dale Fetherling to come up with the first paragraph of his 1973 biography of "Mother Jones," but it's a dilly. Dale died last month at the far-too-young age of 69. He had spent the first two-thirds of his career as a journalist, principally as the editor of the now-departed San Diego County Edition of the Los Angeles Times, where he hired me as city editor in 1980. Then he became a successful author and collaborator on about 20 books for other people.

Read this opening to Mother Jones: Miners' Angel for inspiration in how to begin a book.

The fire, at times a 100-foot-high wall of flame, hurtled down streets, burst through buildings, and engulfed whole blocks. It bore down with heat and smoke and ash on the refugees and sightseers who jammed the city’s streets and bridges. To many of those who fled, the scene may have seemed like the preacher’s most spirited description of Judgment Day. Block after block was aflame. Wagons, carts, wheelbarrows, and buggies piled high with personal effects became stalled in a sea of pedestrians rained upon by blazing embers. Desperate owners and would-be looters tossed valuables from upper-story windows. Horses, dogs, and children ran through the streets in search for their masters. Bearers of makeshift stretchers jostled with the crowd in an attempt to move the sick and the injured. Toppling walls, the crackle of flames, and a strong wind competed with the screams of the frantic and the whistling of tugboats pushing sailing ships to safety. It was 1871. Chicago – ‘’the Gem of the Prairie’’ – was being destroyed by the then-most-destructive fire in American history.


  1. Sorry to hear that your friend Dale passed away last month. This is a fabulous opening for a book. I haven't read anything by him but I'll check it out. Posting this excerp is a wonderful way to celebrate his life.

  2. That's a very nice thing to say. Thank you.