Peter J. Atwood fiction

I like words, and more, words that are used well. This is where I collect them. Most I come across in the works of other authors, but on occasion I find some in the wild myself.


“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

—Elmore Leonard, Curtesy of Futility Closet

His summary of his rules for writing.

“You are as big as the things that make you angry.”

—Kevin Kelly, The Technium

“Then she straightened the bills out on the desk and put one on top of the other and pushed them across. Very slowly, very sadly, as if she was drowning a favorite kitten.”

—Raymond Chandler, (via Futility Closet)

“If you use similes,” Chandler said, “try and make them both extravagant and original.”

“Silence is not always tact and it is tact that is golden, not silence.”

—Samuel Butler

“At times it seems that I am living my life backward, and that at the approach of old age my real youth will begin.”

—André Gide

“You're rolling up a long account, but it only takes a bullet to collect that sort of a bill!”

—Max Brand, The Untamed

A warning to a cowboy that he has offended you one too many times.

“You might jest as well go an' shoot yourse'f before startin'. That'll save your hoss the long ride.”

—Max Brand, The Untamed

Spoken to a cowboy about to ride off on a fool’s errand.

As mesmerizing as a cat washing its whiskers in a sunbeam.

“It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere.”

—E. B. White, The New Yorker, 1943

E. B. White on democracy.

“I been everywhere, baby; don’t want to go back no more.”

—T-Bone Walker, Travelin’ Blues

“The ultimate forgetfulness of violence Sweeps the landscape like a headlight of a train.”

—Bruce Cockburn, "Night Train"

The song is full of striking poetry—like so many of Cockburn's lyrics. But "the ultimate forgetfulness of violence" gets at what is so horrific and essential about acts of violence, at all scales.

“Beauty is power; a smile is its sword.”

—John Ray, 1627–1705

“He was benignant, kind and fatherly.”

—Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit

“benignant”—meaning the opposite of malignant—I don't think I've ever seen this word before.

“Sometimes I play it smooth; sometimes I play it like a waffle pan.”

—Raymond Chandler, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, CBS Radio

Philip Marlowe, after a suspect quips, “You like to play it smooth, don’t you?”

“Tougher than a forty-cent steak.”

—Raymond Chandler, “King in Yellow”, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe

The Adventures of Philip Marlowe is a CBS radio drama from the 1940s, and it is not clear if they are original stories, or adaptations of Marlowe stories by Raymond Chandler.

“Shall nothing more be asked of us than that we be honest? For the present, good friends, nothing. It seems that in our aspirations to be more than that, we have to some extent lost sight of the propriety of being so much as that.”

—John Ruskin, Unto This Last

I have read and reread Ruskin’s ”Unto This Last“ throughout my life, and I am surprised that in these times when capitalism is more and more under serious scrutiny, I see so few references to these essays, which he wrote as a contemporary rebuttal to Adam Smith’s ”The Wealth of Nations.“

“It’s a street in a strange world, Maybe it’s the Third World, Maybe it’s his first time around.”

—Paul Simon, You Can Call Me Al

“A well tied tie is the first serious step in life.”

—Oscar Wilde

“Shun the inquisitive person, for he is also a talker.”


OMG, this is too true.

It was a terrible, precious second chance, and like forgiveness, it brimmed with both love and grief.

“Knights who sliced a red, life-bubbling way thro’ twenty folds of twisted dragon.”

—Alfred Lord Tennyson, Gareth and Lynette

From Idylls of the King

“A voice as dreadful as the shout of one who sees to one who sins.”

—Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Coming of Arthur

“At once from either side, with trumpet-blast, And shouts and clarions shrilling unto blood, The long-lanced battle let their horses run.”

—Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Coming of Arthur

This sentence from Tennyson's wonderful poem makes no sense. What does "shrilling unto blood" mean? How can a battle be "long-lanced"? The battle is singular, but he says it let "their" horses run. And don't the horses belong to the knights, not to the battle? But where the logic and grammar fail, the sense and feel are captured and wonderfully conveyed.

“To be a poet at twenty is to be twenty: to be a poet at forty is to be a poet.”

—Eugène Delacroix

The inimical mountains, changing their expressions like deceitful old men.

“Love is like those shabby hotels in which all the luxury is in the lobby.”

—Paul-Jean Toulet, 1867–1920, (via Futility Closet)

And there it was, the trail down to where the land fitted itself to the sea and the pale coast wound like a fallen scarf blown by the wind.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

—Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

This is perhaps Heinlein's most famous and most cited passage. Two things stand out for me, that the first item is “change a diaper”—all humans need to know how to look after their young—and that he includes both “take orders” and “give orders”—they are very different skills and it is the quality of a well-rounded person that he or she can do both.

“‘Now you look!’ she said. ‘If God had consulted the cucumber before he made man, there would be less unhappy women in the world.’”

—John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal

Steinbeck is quoting an old widow he met on a village farm in Ukraine in 1948.

“How Socratic is Somerset Maugham! What is virtue to him but a norm? So the best propaedeutic is a process maieutic, and all evil is merely bad form.”

—R. B. S. Instone, (via Futility Closet)

A deliciously erudite limerick.

“Work, the hobby of the philosopher and the poor man’s friend. . . . Work, the hobby of the hustler and the deadbeat’s dread.”

—P. G. Wodehouse, Psmith in the City

“That is the peculiarity of London. There is a sort of cold unfriendliness about it. A city like New York makes the new arrival feel at home in half an hour; but London is a specialist in … the Distant Stare. You have to buy London’s goodwill.”

—P. G. Wodehouse, Psmith in the City

“The first faint winter’s dawn was beginning to appear, and we could dimly see the occasional figure of an early workman as he passed us, blurred and indistinct in the opalescent London reek.”

—Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange”

The London fog makes its appearance as a quaint atmospheric in many a Holmes story, and became a standard of gothic detective fiction, but remembering that Doyle wrote during the coal-fueled Industrial Revolution and having lived in modern-day Beijing’s air pollution crisis, I read these references now with an extra dread.

“the sea was dark and tumbling mountain-high, and the white-horses were running down the valleys thereof, and the clouds drave low over all, and bore a scud of rain along with them; and though there was but a rag of sail on her, the ship flew before the wind.”

—William Morris, The Wood Beyond the World

“A woman . . . called up Agnes to him, straight and fast as a light turned on in his face.”

—Patricia Highsmith, The Two Faces of January

“And his breath began to saw in his throat.”

—H. G. Wells, The Invisible Man

An out of breath man being chased.

“It is as if children know instinctively that anything wholly solemn, without a smile behind it, is only half alive.”

—Iona and Peter Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren

“Fuse two hydrogen with one oxygen and repeat until you have enough. While the water is heating, raise some cattle. Pay a man with grim eyes to do the slaughtering, . . . When, out of the blue, you remember the first person you truly loved, the soup is ready.”

—Dean Allen, “How to Cook Soup,” Cardigan Industries

One of the most magical paragraphs ever written. Go read it in full.

“And having got rid of a thumping quid, He spun this painful yarn.”

—W. S. Gilbert, “The Yarn of the Nancy Bell”

“got rid of a thumping quid” = hocked out a loogie

The call to prayer wakes me, the local muezzin whining insistently above the great, stirring engine of Cairo’s mosques.

“We in revolt talk all kind of nonsense doubtless about this crime or that crime of the Government. It is all folly! The only crime of the Government is that it governs. The unpardonable sin of the supreme power is that it is supreme.”

—G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

“Like any man he was coward enough to fear great force, but not quite coward enough to admire it.”

—G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

“Plain girl. Face like a scone.”

—Agatha Christie, Dumb Witness

“It seems to be forgotten that the distinctions of earthly existence are only like an actor’s costume.”

—Kierkegaard, Works of Love

“Editing is an angry, bloody act and therefore must be done in red.”

—John Gruber, Daring Fireball

“She has the morals of a cat!”

—Agatha Christie, Death in the Clouds

Despite all his practice travelling light, his suitcase waited heavy and alone in the hall.

“Now Oneleigh stands in a wide isolation, in the midst of a dark gathering of old whispering cedars. They nod their heads together when the North Wind comes, and nod again and agree, and furtively grow still again, and say no more awhile. The North Wind is to them like a nice problem among wise old men; they nod their heads over it, and mutter about it all together. They know much, those cedars, they have been there so long. Their grandsires knew Lebanon, and the grandsires of these were the servants of the King of Tyre and came to Solomon's court. And amidst these black-haired children of grey-headed Time stood the old house of Oneleigh.”

—Lord Dunsany, "The Ghosts"

This simple and remarkable ghost story is full of poetry. It is difficult to pick just one passage. The above comes from the opening.

“Soldiers in the intervals of battle laugh easily, and a jest in the death chamber conquers by surprise.”

—Ambrose Bierce, "That Damned Thing"

“the linked worlds of love and art. Linked, because love without art is merely the slaking of desire, and art cannot be enjoyed unless it is approached with love.”

—Arthur C. Clarke, The City and the Stars

“Nothing is so unclean as a used tea-cup; nothing is so cold as toast which has once been hot, and the concrete expression of dejection is crumbs.”

—Barry Pain, “The Glass of Supreme Moments”

A craggy mountain of a nose.

The cliffs were cupped and curved as if a god had tasted spoonfuls of stone.

“When you tire of living, change itself seems evil, does it not?”

—Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

“He had raised his daughter with every detail of education and plastic surgery attended to.”

—Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus

“[The girls] appeared, in the intermittent colored flashes, like the queens of strange suits in a tarot deck.”

—Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus

“Alive, in the sense that he can’t legally be buried.”

—Geoffrey Madan (1895–1947)

“His cold eyes operated on me, made neat, exploratory incisions.”

—Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany's

“And since gin to artifice bears the same relation as tears to mascara, her attractions at once dissembled.”

—Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

“Our Wisdom is no less at Fortune’s Mercy than our Wealth.”

—François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680)

“The silence, helped by the slow iron tick of a massively decorated grandfather clock, gathered and crept nearer.”

—Ian Fleming, Goldfinger

“You know how you make pity? One jigger guilt, one jigger contempt.”

—Richard Stark, The Rare Coin Score

“In the next silence he could hear her taking out her pride and looking at it and deciding it wasn't worth the gesture and putting it away in a box till some time when she could tie the score. When next she spoke, her voice was level.”

—Richard Stark, The Rare Coin Score

“If Chester had a failing, it was that he believed people were what they thought they were.”

—Richard Stark, The Hunter

“Sonorous song-birds cursitated about, vultures looming beyond.”

—Autumn Jade, Gorgeous Florida Ecosystem - An Afternoon

Found on YouTube.
“cursitate” v. to run hither and thither.

Eyes closed, he pursued sleep across the shoals of his cares.

“as a tubercular looks into his handkerchief, with fearful expectancy.”

—Ian Fleming, Diamonds Are Forever

“The tunnel of darkness through which the lighted train was burning its thundering path.”

—Ian Fleming, Live and Let Die

“He could hear the fog-horns lowing like iron cattle.”

—Ian Fleming, Casino Royale

“The fishing fleet from Dieppe [strung] out towards the June heat-haze followed by a paper-chase of herring-gulls.”

—Ian Fleming, Casino Royale

“Bond’s stomach crawled with the ants of fear.”

—Ian Fleming, Thunderball

eyes injected with blood.

A container ship stacked like Manhattan off in the fog.

Seen from the beach at Ain Sokhna, on the Red Sea.

She had a pleasant, chipmunk-like smile.

She had a redhead’s pale complexion and lips precise as a punctuation mark.

“In the heavy stormy sunlight, the mestizo stood, staring towards the hut, a little loose about the knees.”

—Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

The brewery smelled of fresh cut oats, and it returned him to the memory of every barn he had known.

Outside the restaurant, a sentry of shut patio umbrellas like a line of caped soldiers.

Whenever he mentioned how much he loved his children, his eyes moistened as if he were having an affair.

“the bed, unruffled as a millpond.”

—Ian McEwan, Solar

“And then pulled the pistol’s foreskin back, and then enjoyed the orgasm of the crushed trigger.”

—Nabokov, Lolita

This is so blatant as to be extraordinary.

“And pity tires the heart.”

—Jillian Becker

Jillian Becker looked after Sylvia Plath and her children as her house guests just before the poet’s suicide.

“His hats were black, round of crown and straight of brim.”

—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“Her clothes had the strained cleanliness that means poverty.”

—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“The bills in their bales were in the safe-deposit box.”

—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“She dug out a slender chain which hung around her neck and pulled the chain’s burden up from her bodice.”

—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The primeval tree’s rising roots heaved a standing wave of paving brick.

“Footsteps on the flagstones accompanied me, filling the empty earth with the sound of my progress.”

—Joseph Conrad, The Inheritors

“He was a person of interminable and incredibly inaccurate reminiscences.”

—Joseph Conrad, The Inheritors

“Miss Churchill’s carriage whirled into sight, sparkling in the sunlight, and sending up an attendant cloud of dust that melted like smoke through the dog-roses of the leeward hedge.”

—Joseph Conrad, The Inheritors

“The party was a liquidation of someone’s social obligations.”

—Joseph Conrad, The Inheritors

Her thoughts inched across her memories like a measuring worm.

He argued against the nihilism of the stars.

“His fingers got together in conference, talking to each other like ants.”

—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“A flight of sparrows flew off like a gray scarf twisting in the light.”

—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“a blanket of herring clouds was rolling in.”

—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“When two men live together they usually maintain a kind of shabby neatness out of incipient rage at each other.”

—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“[It] wound about like a flatland stream.”

—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“The quiet was disturbed only by the slup of soup and the gnash of chewing.”

—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

“The russet pinpricks of sodium lamps from a small mining town sparkled in the distance.”

—Lee Billings, SEED magazine

“the gentle lines that accrue around eyes and mouth from years of smiles.”

—Lee Billings, SEED magazine

I like the use of the word “accrue”.

A discarded cigarette bleeding trails of smoke across the pavement.

The sun unfolded across the glass skyline in a Mercator projection of an orange diamond.

“It was something small that we foolishly made into something big.”

—Alex Payne, The Magazine

Writing about his marriage after his divorce.

She was as exotic and flavorless as dragonfruit.

Debt is a geometrically deepening pit.

flying among the sugar fields of the night sky.

“a clot of raw data.”

—Doctorow and Rosenbaum, True Names

A military pair stroll by, their at-ease pendulum arms falling into synchronicity.

“streets so congested that watching them fill up in the morning was like watching sausage casings being stuffed with meat.”

—Neal Stephenson

“simultaneously connecting and unweaving the world.”

—Lee Billings

Speaking of the Internet and modern communicationshm technology.

“[the books’] margins and interlinear spaces now caulked with notes.”

—Neal Stephenson

“Daniel lies there spreadeagled for a while, staring up at the stars—white geometric points on a slate, gridded by shadows of rigging, an explanatory network of catenary curves and Euclidean sections, like one of those geometric proofs.”

—Neal Stephenson

Who pissed in your wine skin?

“spending candles by the pound and ink by the quart, working their separate ways through Aristotle.”

—Neal Stephenson

“The blood [at night] looked like tar on the grass.”

—Neal Stephenson

The janitor at the ice rink skates figures. His arms arc over his head for a pirouette, then extend in practiced elegance for a glide—a dancer who disappears, one imagines, when he unties his skates and picks up his broom.

Perhaps he is not the janitor at all, but the incongruity of his fluency on the ice with his blue-collar attire provokes my imagination: a figure-skater who once won applause and medals and loved his art too much to forsake it when his limbs grew infirm. He accepted the job of janitor at a shopping-mall ice-rink so that he could continue to skate everyday. No audiences applaud or cheer, but the children with their mothers circling the boards turn their heads and stare—as do I—at the surprise of a solitary old man happy at play, dancing to a melody only he hears and remembers.

“The tail of Ursa Major was like the hand of a celestial clock, and [he] was studying how to read it.”

—Neal Stephenson

Something about the hush in her voice makes me check our surroundings. Outside our daughter’s karate class, along the tree-lined canal path—ah, yes, it’s safe to talk about her work here.

a file sneezes back and forth over a section of iron.

“Enoch had the same way with his memories as a ship’s master with his rigging—a compulsion to tighten what was slack, mend what was frayed, caulk what leaked, and stow, or throw overboard, what was to no purpose.”

—Neal Stephenson

“The stairs boomed and groaned like a ship in a squall.”

—Neal Stephenson

On a heavy person descending stairs.

“The sun had been rolling along the horizon for hours, like a fat waterfowl making its takeoff run.”

—Neal Stephenson

“Gusts make the anchored ships start and jostle like nervous horses hearing distant guns.”

—Neal Stephenson

“a low green hill shingled with long slender hay-mows limned by dry stone fences.”

—Neal Stephenson

“The sails and rigging, spars and masts to his starboard combine into a tangle vast and inextricable, as characters on a page must do in the eyes of an unlettered peasant.”

—Neal Stephenson

“a lad, moving about like a drop of quicksilver that cannot be trapped under the thumb.”

—Neal Stephenson

“Flotillas of shavings from some carpenter’s block-plane sail down the stream like ships going off to war. Underneath them the weak current nudges turds and bits of slaughtered animals down towards the harbor. It smells accordingly. No denying there is a tallow-chandlery not far upwind, where beast-grease not fit for eating is made into candles and soap.”

—Neal Stephenson

In this description, Neal Stephenson describes one thing well, evoking other contributions to the surrounding and atmosphere. This is much better than the lists of things I keep trying to cram into my descriptions, describing three or four things in the setting.

“deep hissing booms, like handfuls of sand hurled against kettledrums.”

—Neal Stephenson

Redcoats firing their muskets.

“an old man with silver hair queued down to the small of his back.”

—Neal Stephenson

Nice use of the word "queue" in its original sense.

“a voice that carries forever on the wind, like the smell of smoke.”

—Neal Stephenson

“Her emotions had their truest existence in the telling of them.”

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night

“They passed the Juan-les-Pins Casino, still sobbing and coughing with jazz.”

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night

“The air was motionless. I could hear no insects, nor any birds. The fruit bats flew high, beating their wings in absolute quiet. It seemed simple and wonderful: the world as an enormous room.”

—Paul Theroux

In the morning, the monk visits each shop to trade a prayer or a blessing for a coin—a kind of extortion of the soul.

“No, I’m not really [complicated]—I’m just a—I’m just a whole lot of different simple people.”

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night

She kissed at the sour taste.

“Dr. Dohmler spread his hands wide enough to carry a young pig.”

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night

Yesterday, school children stood in ranks and files on the printed pavement like on the Champs de Mars while an instructor drilled them. Today music played in fits as they rehearsed like a marching band.

A puppy beside me barked at nothing, girls playing pick-up-stones laughed behind me, and I stood watching the Himalayas until my feet ached.

Eating at a roadside café in the dark while the monsoon winds batter the Chinese lanterns on their cords.

A young woman in casual dress, studiously wrapped so as to accommodate her expensive, artfully selected jewelry.

A dim café, with every patron hidden in a corner, so that you had to search for them like spotting an exotic bird in a seemingly empty cage during midday at the zoo.

He poured his beer with slow precision, as if it was the one task to perform correctly during the day.

“Finally there was a dull crack as Tenzing’s skull split open and the chanting rose to a crescendo.”

—Sir Edmund Hillary, View from the Summit

Like a Frenchman pouting his indifference.

The quacking of home-made rickshaw horns.

Wearing a ticket like a head wound.

Drinking jerry cans of palm wine.

The room smelled like cordite.

After a gun has been fired.

Two white-haired Brits at the bar talking football and Thailand sex tours.

The tireless plinking of a piano tuner about his task.

The peppery and acrid waft of gunpowder.

Remembering Chinese New Year in Beijing.

He had a voice like gravel stirred in a bucket.

He had a dropped-chin scowl as if he were permanently disgusted.

“The graves lay like wolves under the trees, winking white eyes under the gloom of the evergreens.”

—Graham Greene, The Third Man

“He gave a grin which took five years off his age.”

—Graham Greene, The Third Man

“Surprise opened [inside him] like a wound over the inevitable.”


A pair of small-time skells.

Eau de corpse.

A silence hung in the air like gun-smoke.