Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction – Part 7

Before your work is done.

Dynamic non-fiction should move with Efficiency and be Tantalizing to readers and publishers.


Deep Writing 

By Eric Maisel 

Writers in the real world tend to make one of the following choices:

  1. “I do not care about success in the  marketplace or access to the marketplace. I am writing my work the way it needs to be written.”
  2. “I care about success in the marketplace and access to the marketplace, but still I mean to write my work the way it needs to be written. Perhaps a miracle will occur and my poem, story, article or book will be wanted despite its disregard for commercial expectations.”
  3. “I care about success in the marketplace, and I will strive to make my writing commercially viable. This may mean that my ideas may cease to exist in their original form and that only a portion of their depth will be retained. But I can live with that.” 

Deep writing is one thing and career  considerations are another, but it is hard not to want to think about both and find some way to craft a happy marriage between them. I am straddling the fence, advocating neither the purely personal nor the purely commercial, because both choices leave a lot to be desired. With the first, the likelihood is great that what you write will not be wanted or will be wanted in a limited way, and psychological pain accompanies this outcome. With the second, you may well feel that you’ve violated some important ethical principles and are likely to experience psychological discomfort as a result. The most satisfactory path is to strive to marry the deep and the commercial in such a way that your truth gets told and also reaches a wide audience.

Before you go too far, try to answer each of these:

A. Working Title



B. Tag Line


C. Primary Audience


D. Features (these are things the book offers—like, “eight steps to better writing.”)






E. Benefits (these are what the reader receives—like, “will make your work more appealing to readers and editors.”)






F. Urgency (Why is this subject important now?)

G. Your Image (What makes you the special person to write this?)




Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction – Part 6


1. Simultaneous

In Hiroshima, John Hersey describes, by turns, what each of six people were doing at 8:15 AM , the precise moment of the blast. Through this narrative approach he is able, not only to suggest the range of experiences of Hiroshima survivors, but to re-create the horror of the detonation in the reader’s mind—again and again and again. 

2. Sequential

For his book, In Cold Blood, Truman Capote uses overlapping but forward moving sequences of action. He counterpoints events in the last day in the lives of the four members of the Clutter family with those of the murders. 

3. Interior Monologue

A substantial part of Gay Talese’s article on Floyd Patterson, The Loser, utilizes internal monologues, the reporting of a person’s internal (often unspoken) thoughts and feelings. The writer needs to be very close to his or her subject for this intimate approach to be credible. 

Hiroshima by John Hersey 

    At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the

atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was setting down crosslegged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next–that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. .

    The Reverend Mr. Tanimoto got up at five o’clock that morning. He was alone in the… 

In Cold Blood

 By Truman Capote 

    Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans—in fact, few Kansans—had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there. The inhabitants of the village, numbering two hundred and seventy, were satisfied that this should be so, quite content to exist inside ordinary life—to work, to hunt, to watch television, to attend school socials, choir practice, meetings of the 4H Club. But then, in the earliest hours of that morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises—on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles. At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them—four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives…

    Passing through the orchard, Mr. Cutter proceeded along beside the river, which was shallow here and strewn with islands—midstream beaches of soft sand, to which, on Sundays gone by, hot-weather Sabbaths when Bonnie had still “felt up to things,” picnic baskets had been carted, family afternoons whiled away waiting for a twitch at the end of the fishline. Mr. Clutter seldom encountered trespassers on his property; a mile and a half from the highway, and arrived at by obscure roads, it was not a place that strangers came upon by chance…

    Like Mr. Clutter, the young man breakfasting in a café called the Little Jewel never drank coffee. He preferred root beer. Three aspirin, cold root beer, and a chain of Pall Mall cigarettes—that was his notion of a proper “chow –down.” Sipping and smoking, he studied a map spread on the counter before him—a Phillips 66 map of Mexico—but it was difficult to concentrate, for he was expecting a friend, and the friend was late. He looked out a window at the silent small-town street, a street he had never seen until yesterday. Still no sign of Dick. Be he was sure to show up; after all, the purpose of their meeting was Dick’s idea, his “score.”

    “Good grief, Kenyon! I hear you.”

    As usual, the devil was in Kenyon. His shouts kept coming up the stairs: “Nancy! Telephone…” 

The Loser

 By Gay Talese

     And I keep thinking, as I flew out of Vegas that night, of all those months of training before the fight, all the roadwork, all the sparring, all the months away from Sandra…thinking of the time in camp when I wanted to stay up until eleven-fifteen p.m. to watch a certain movie on The Late Show. But I didn’t because I had roadwork the next morning…

    …And I was thinking about how good I’d felt before the fight, as I lay on the table in the dressing room. I remember thinking, `You’re in excellent physical condition, you’re in good mental condition—but are you vicious?’ But you tell yourself, `Viciousness is not important now, don’’ think about it now: a championship fight’s at stake, and that’s important enough and, who knows” maybe you’ll get vicious once the bell rings.”

    …And so you lay there trying to get a little sleep…but you’re only in a twilight zone, half asleep, and you’re interrupted every once in a while by voices out in the hall, some guy’s yelling `Hey, Jack,’ or `Hey, Al,’ or `Hey, get those four-pounders into the ring.’ And when you hear that, you think, `They’re not ready for you yet.’ So you lay there…and wonder, `Where will I be tomorrow? Where will I be three hours from now?’ Oh, you think all kinds of thoughts, some thoughts completely unrelated to the fight…you wonder whether you ever paid your mother-in-law back for all those stamps she bought a year ago…and you remember that time at two a.m. when Sandra tripped on the steps while bringing a bottle up to the baby…and then you get mad and ask: `What am I thinking about these things for?’…and you try to sleep…but then the door opens and somebnody says to somebody else, `Hey, is somebody gonna go to Liston’s dressing room to watch ‘em bandage up?’

    …And so then you know it’s about time to get ready…You open your eyes. You get off the table. You glove up, you loosen up. Then Liston’s trainer walks in. He looks at you, he smiles. He feels the bandages and later he says, `Good luck, Floyd.’ And you think, `He didn’t have to say that; he must be a nice guy.’

    …And then you go out, and it’s the long walk, always a long walk, and you think, `What am I gonna be when I come back this way?’ Then you climb into the ring. You notice Billy Eckstine at ringside leaning over to talk to somebody, and you see the reporters—some you like, some you don’t like—and then it’s The Star Spangled Banner, and the cameras are rolling, and the bell rings…

…How could the same thing happen twice? How? That’s all I kept thinking after the knockout…Was I fooling these people all these years”…Was I ever the champion?…And then they lead you out of the ring…and up the aisle you go, past those people, and all you want is to get to your dressing room, fast…but the trouble was in Las Vegas they made a wrong turn along the aisle, and when we got to the end there was no dressing room there…and we had to walk all the way back down the aisle, past the same people, and they must have been thinking, `Patterson’s not only knocked out, but he can’t even find his dressing room…’

    …In the dressing room I had a headache. Liston, didn’t hurt me physically—a few days later I only felt a twitching nerve in my teeth—it was nothing like some fights I’ve had: like that Dick Wagner fight in ’53 when he beat my body so bad I was urinating blood for days. After the Liston fight, I just went into the bathroom, shut the door behind me, and looked at myself in the mirror. I just looked at myself, and asked, `What happened?’ and then they started pounding on the door, and saying, `Com’ on, Floyd, com’on out; the press is here, Cus is here, com’on out, Floyd…

    …And so I went out, and they asked questions, but what can you say? What you’re thinking about is all those months of training, all the conditioning, all the depriving; and you think, `I didn’t have to run that extra mile, didn’t have to spar that day, I could have stayed up that night in camp and watched The Late Show…I could have fought this fight tonight in no condition…

Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction – Part 5


description  (how much?–the telling detail, not adjectives or adverbs, get the audience to judge, use of motion, atmosphere—setting mirroring character, conflict or theme (remember “opposites,” especially between characters and within the central character) 

introducing characters through action (suggest singularity and temperament, gesture–body language) 

dialogueemotional subtext (each character in a scene has an agenda) summary dialogue, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, hidden dialogue. 

realization–reaction, inner response, ie, emotional beat, not the paragraph is the unit, and its tempo is the changing intensity of your story. 

changing place (and time), begin scene with establishing dialogue or description. 

Dynamic non-fiction is visually Memorable. 

Notes Left Behind: The Language of Suicide 

By Alec Wilkinson (The New Yorker, Feb 15th, 1999) 

    A woman from a town at the other end of the Cape called the police station one afternoon and asked if we would deliver a message to her husband, who was visiting the house they were building for their retirement, the house had no phone. I was in the station when Charles Berrio, another patrolmen, who was known as Chickie, found him. The man had attached a length of yellow nylon cord to a water pipe in the ceiling of the basement and tied the other end around his neck. Since Chickie had one of the town’s two police cars and the Chief had the other, I asked Lori Kmiec, a dispatcher, who was leaving for the day, if she would take me there, but she said she wouldn’t go near a house with a dead body in it. Someone else took me, I forget who. I walked through the front door. In a chair by a picture window looking over the marsh was an old man sitting with his hands folded in his lap. He paid no attention to me. The man hanging from the rope in the basement had his back to a sliding glass door that framed an inlet of the marsh. His knees were bent, and his feet were touching the cement floor. He had taken his shoes off. The ceiling was so low that there had been no tension to the rope; he had brought about his end simply by letting his body go slack. He could have stood up anytime he lost his nerve. In the shadowy basement, Chickie, his eyes not yet adjusted from the daylight, had walked into the man. Months later, when the subject of the man’s suicide came up, Chickie said that the figure of the hanging man still appeared in his dreams.

    The county man arrived and took photographs, and then Chickie applied the blade of a pocketknife to the yellow cord. None of us looked into one another’s eyes as we lowered him. It felt as if we were performing an ancient gesture. The man from the funeral home showed up and poked at the dead man’s swollen neck and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to get that down for an open casket.”

    I asked Chickie about the man upstairs. “Guy’s brother,” he said. “Deaf. Never heard a thing.”

    I stood for a while looking at the piece of rope and the water pipe and the view out the window. I felt the way I remembered feeling as a child when rising early, I could hear the voices of my parents through the walls of their bedroom—my father’s low and rumbling and my mother’s high, the combination like a piece of music—but I couldn’t make out what they were actually saying, and I had the feeling that the substance of their conversation was important and that if I could  understand it I would be in possession of something profound.

Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction Part 4


    Whereas description captures the outer world, inner responses in a scene give a reader access to intangible thoughts and feelings.  In an attempt to appear objective, many firsthand writers omit character responses and their writing is spiritless.  Emotions and insights are like the close-up shots in a film.  Without them an audience feels disconnected, at too far a distance…

    In narrative, a beat is the unit of the characters’ state of being which leads to the next unit.  If you studied composition in school, you were taught to write essays and papers by the logical development of ideas.  You were taught to have a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph, to develop your main idea, paragraph by paragraph, and to draw a conclusion at the end.  The basic unit of development was the concept of each paragraph.

    That’s not how you do it in narrative.  Yes, as in exposition, you want a development of your subject by units.  You don’t want everything to be a blur, a jumble.  But in narrative, the basic unit of development is the beat, not the paragraph.  So you have chapters, scenes and within the scenes, beats.  Each beat is a micro-realization of the state of awareness of the feelings and thoughts of the characters, which evolve beat by beat by beat.                          

–Tristine Rainer, Your Life as Story

 description  (how much?–the telling detail, not adjectives or adverbs, get the audience to judge, use of motion, atmosphere—setting mirroring character, conflict or theme (remember “opposites,” especially between characters and within the central character) 

introducing characters through action (suggest singularity and temperament, gesture–body language) 

dialogueemotional subtext (each character in a scene has an agenda) summary dialogue, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, hidden dialogue. 

realization–reaction, inner response, ie, emotional beat, not the paragraph is the unit, and its tempo is the changing intensity of your story. 

changing place (and time), begin scene with establishing dialogue or description.

Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction Part 3

Seeing below the surface.

Dynamic non-fiction relishes personality.

CHARACTER SUBTEXT Answer these questions for the major subject(s) in your piece: 

A.  Who is the love in this person’s life?   

Think about the emotions this person has in a relationship with whom he or she is involved.  Limit your answer to a single choice.  

B.  What is this person fighting for?   

What or who interferes with this subject accomplishing his or her goals.  Most of us don’t live for realities, but for dreams of what might be.   

C.  What of special significance has happened to this person the year before, or if it’s more appropriate, what will happen to your subject within the next year?   

D. Describe the humor in this person’s life.   

Often we alleviate the serious burdens of life by doing things that strike others as humorous.  Identify the sense of humor of your subject or something he or she does that strikes others as humorous.  

E.  What opposites exist in this person?   

What fascinates us about other human beings are their inconsistencies (if there is love, there is bound to be hate too; if there is a great need for someone or something, there is a resentment of that need as well).  

F.  What kind of discovery is this person likely to make about himself or herself?   

Is there some kind of a revelation your subject will have? 

G.  How does this person affect someone with whom he or she is interacting?   

Particularly with regard to someone the subject should care about.  

H.  What is the source of this person’s importance?    

Reputation, money, power, title?  Answer this for your subject.   

I.   With what place does the person have a close association?  

It can be a geographic location, an office downtown or a summer cottage, or it can be a particular room in the house–a workshop in the basement, the kitchen, a couch in front of the TV…even a car. 

J.  What is intriguing about this person?   

(When I think about my father I’m fascinated by how similar we are and how different we are.)  


By Mike Royko (from Sez Who? Sez Me)

    If a man ever reflected a city, it was Richard J. Daley and Chicago. 

    In some ways, he was this town at its best—strong, hard-driving, working feverishly, pushing, building, driven by ambitions so big they seemed Texas-boastful.

    In other ways, he was this city at its worst—arrogant, crude, conniving, ruthless, suspicious, intolerant.

    He wasn’t graceful, suave, witty, or smooth.  But, then, this is not Paris or San Francisco.

    He was raucous, sentimental, hot-tempered, practical, simple, devious, big, and powerful.  This is, after all, Chicago.

    Sometimes the very same Daley performance would be seen as both outrageous and heroic.  It depended on whom you asked for an opinion.

    For example, when he stood on the Democratic National Convention floor in 1968 and mouthed furious crudities at smooth Abe Ribicoff, tens of millions of TV viewers were shocked.

    But it didn’t offend most Chicagoans.  That’s part of the Chicago style—belly to belly, scowl to scowl, and may the toughest or loudest man win.

    Daley was not an articulate man, most English teachers would agree.  People from other parts of the country sometimes marveled that a politician who fractured the language so thoroughly could be taken so seriously.

    Well, Chicago is not an articulate town, Saul Bellow notwithstanding.  Maybe it’s because so many of us aren’t that far removed from parents and grandparents who knew only bits and pieces of the language.

    So when Daley slid sideways into a sentence, or didn’t exit from the same paragraph he entered, it amused us.  But it didn’t sound that different than the way most of us talk.

    Besides, he got his point across, one way or another, and usually in Chicago style.  When he thought critics should mind their own business about the way he handed out insurance business to

his sons, he tried to think of a way to say they should kiss his ass  He found a way.  He said it.  We understood it. What more can one ask of the lan- guage?

    Daley was a product of the neighborhoods and he reflected it in many good ways—loyalty to the family, neighbors, old buddies, the corner grocer.  You do something for someone, they do something for you.  If somebody is sick, you offer the family help.  If someone dies, you go to the wake and try to lend comfort.  The young don’t lip off to the old; everybody cuts his grass, takes care of his property.  And don’t play your TV too loud.

    That’s the way he liked to live, and that’s what he thought most people wanted, and he was right.

    But there are other sides to Chicago neighborhoods–suspicion of outsiders, intolerance toward the unconventional, bigotry, and bullying.

    That was Daley, too.  As he proved over and over again, he didn’t trust outsiders, whether they were long-hairs against war, black preachers against segregation, reformers against his machine, or community groups against his policies.  This was his neighborhood-ward-city-county, and nobody could come in and make noise.  He’d call the cops.  Which he did.

    And, for all the swinging new life-styles, that is still basically Chicago.  Maybe New York will let porn and massage houses spread like fast-food franchises, and maybe San Francisco will welcome gay cops.  But Chicago is still a square town.  So City Hall made sure our carnal vices were kept to a public minimum.  If old laws didn’t work, they got new laws that did.

    On the other hand, there were financial vices.  And if somebody in City Hall saw a chance to make a fast bundle or two, Daley wasn’t given to preaching.  His advice amounted to: Don’t get caught.

    But that’s Chicago, too.  The question has never been how you made it, but if you made it.  This town was built by great men who demanded that drunkards and harlots be arrested, while charging them rent until the cops arrived.

    If Daley sometimes abused his power, it didn’t offend most Chicagoans.  The people who came here in Daley’s lifetime were accustomed to someone wielding power like a club, be it a czar, emperor, king, or rural sheriff.  The niceties of the democratic process weren’t part of the immigrant experience.  So if the machine muscle offended some it seemed like old times to many more.

    Eventually Daley made the remarkable transition from political boss to father figure.

    Maybe he couldn’t have been a father figure in Berkeley, California; Princeton, New Jersey; or even Skokie, Illinois.  But in Chicago there was nothing unusual about a father who worked long hours, meant shut up when he said shut up, and backed it up with a jolt to the head.  Daley was as believable a father figure as anybody’s old man…

Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction Part 2

Dynamic non-fiction delivers unexpected drama.


We want "heightened reality."

Now, as I stroll down the street, my right forefinger extends five feet in front of me, feeling the ground where my feet will walk.

Before my right hand would have been on a steering wheel as I went down the street. I drove to work, found shortcuts in strange cities, picked up my two daughters after school. Those were the days when I ran my finger down a phone-book page and never dialed Information. When I read novels and couldn’t sleep until I had finished the last page. Those were the nights when I could point out a shooting star before it finished scraping across the dark sky. And when I could go to the movies and it didn’t matter if it was a foreign film or not.

But all this changed about seven years ago. I was driving home for lunch on what seemed to be an increasingly foggy day, although the perky radio deejay said it was clear and sunny. After I finished my lunch, I realized that I couldn’t see across the room to my front door. I had battled glaucoma for 20 years. Suddenly, without warning, my eyes had hemorrhaged.

I will never regain any of my lost sight. I see things through a porthole covered in wax paper. I now have no vision in my left eye and only slight vision in my right. A minefield of blind spots make people and cars suddenly appear and vanish. I have no depth perception. Objects are not closer and farther; they’re larger and smaller. Steps, curbs and floors all flow on the same flat plane. My world has shapes but no features. Friends are mannequins in the fog until I recognize their voices. Printed words look like ants writhing on the pages. Doorways are unlit mine shafts. This is not a place for the


– by Jim Bobryk (Newsweek, March 8, 1999)


Here’s something worth remembering.  Inexperienced writers are afraid they’re going to loose their audiences if they don’t hook them with the title and a gimmicky first line.  Give your audience credit for more intelligence than this.  Remember they’re not coming to this work critically, but with the hope that this is the story that will…go deeper in, take them farther out… make them more of what they are.  It’s why we go to plays expectantly, despite the fact that most performances are disappointing. Why we read the next novel, though left unsatisfied by so many before.  We aren’t disappointed by tricks, but because a writer has squandered the opportunity to do so much more.

As you write, picture a person lovingly reading over your shoulder who wants more.  Who says, “I want to feel it just as you did, don’t rush through the details.  What was the temperature?  How did the light shine in through the window?  When she made that remark, did her expression change ever so subtly?  What is the reason these characters are here? What are their relationships?”  The scene, the characters are a means to express your and the reader’s fullest feelings, deeply and importantly.  Explore the richness of each possibility.”

Michael Shurtleff (Audition) notes that in everyday living we try to avoid or resolve conflict, but conflict is what creates drama.  Under the control of the written page we explore ramifications beyond everyday life.  It’s not enough to capture reality on the page.   We want heightened reality.  The writer needs to find out what the characters in every scene are fighting for, to fully play out the opposites that exist within each character.  You have many creative choices in the selection of what you include and what you exclude.  Make choices that intensify real life drama.  In the example above, we get the contrasts between the sighted and the unsighted world.  Remember whenever you have two conflicting things, intensify both. 

Michael Shurtleff says, ” One of the great results of using opposites is behavior that is unpredictable, therefore always more intriguing to an audience.  In out example we, the reader, are imagining how we would react. And in general, it’s why people are forever astonishing us in life: we don’t know what they’re going to do next, they’re not consistent, and their doing something we didn’t expect is always surprising us.  Interesting acting always has this risk element of the unpredictable in it.  That’s why actors like Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando and DeNiro and Pachino interest us so; we never quite know what they’re going to do next.  They make us want to know.  They make us keep watching them.  They surprise us with their unpredictability.”

As a writer you need to supply these opposites, even if you don’t see them in your subject in real life.  What’s there is obvious.  It’s what is underneath the obvious that makes for interesting writing.

Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction Part 1

Eight Secrets

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it’s raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”                                                   –E.L. Doctorow 

John Lehman

What are the forces at work below the surface that affect editors and publishers? Discover, for example, how each book or article must offer a tacit promise to an audience and how to shape your work to make it memorable. Use these eight techniques to find the best subjects, develop them most effectively and market the results for quickest success. John Lehman has presented writing seminars in dozens of cities throughout the country. He is a book reviewer for Book Lover Magazine and is a columnist for BusinessFirst. He has had articles in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Omni and more than fifty other consumer and trade publications. He is the founder and publisher of Rosebud magazine.

Dynamic Non-Fiction:

1. Offers a tacit Promise

2. Delivers unexpected Drama

3. Revels in Personality

4. Is visually Memorable

5. Gives content Shape

6. Moves with Efficiency   

7. Has a title that’s Tantalizing 8. Can be readily Marketed 

 Dynamic non-fiction offers a tacit Promise.  

The Rats on the Waterfront 

By Joseph Mitchell 

    The biggest rat colonies in the city are found in run-down structures on or near the waterfront, especially in tenements, live-poultry markets, wholesale produce markets, slaughterhouses, warehouses, stables and garages. They also turn up in more surprising places. Department of Health inspectors have found their claw and tail tracks in the basements of some of the best restaurants in the city. A few weeks ago, in the basement and sub-basement of a good old hotel in the East Forties, a crew of exterminators trapped two hundred and thirty-six in three nights. Many live in the subways; in the early-morning hours, during the long lulls between trains, they climb to the platforms and forage among the candy–bar wrappers and peanut hulls. There are great colonies of brown rats in Central Park…

    The rats of New York are quicker-witted than those on farms, and they can out-think any man who has not made a study of their habits. Even so, they spend most of their lives in a state of extreme anxiety, the black rats dreading the brown and both species dreading human beings. Away from their nests, they are usually on the edge of hysteria. They will bite babies (now and then, they bite one to death), and they will bite sleeping adults, but ordinarily they flee from people. If hemmed in, and sometimes if too suddenly come upon, they will attack. They fight savagely and blindly, in the manner of mad dogs; they bare their teeth and leap about every which way, snarling and snapping and clawing the air. A full-grown black rat, when desperate, can jump three feet horizontally and make a vertical leap of two feet two inches, and a brown rat is nearly as spry. They are greatly feared by firemen. One of the hazards of fighting a fire in a junk shop or in an old warehouse is the crazed rats… 


By Tracy Kidder 

    Jim Locke sets gently on the undisturbed earth a mahogany box, opens it, and takes out his transit, which looks like a spyglass. It is a tool for imposing levelness on an irregular world.

    Locke’s transit is made of steel with small brass adjusting wheels and is as old as the century, more than twice as old as Locke, who is thirty-six. He uses it near the beginnings of jobs and first of all for guiding bulldozers. Locke erects the transit on a tripod. He turns the brass wheels until the bubble, encased in glass beneath the eyepiece, floats to the center of its chamber. Then, bending over, putting one eye to the lens of the transit and squinting the other, he transforms his view of this patch of open ground into a narrow, well-lighted tunnel divided by cross hairs. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, in another context. “The art of civilization is the act of drawing lines.” And of course it has also been the act of drawing level ones.

    This piece of ground was once part of a New England hayfield. It lies on the southern outskirts of Amherst, Massachusetts, a college  and university town, the kind of place that has a fine public school system and a foreign policy. The site has been studied all winter…