Lines from the Stacks




Posted by Kathy Waller


Write a blog post? I would prefer not to.

No, that’s not correct. I’d be happy to. But I have nothing to say. It’s three a.m. and my brain is an absolute vacuum. It’s been that way all summer.

So this time I’m going to let others write for me.

Books, restacked.
Books, restacked.

Finding substitutes is not difficult. Their books lie all over the floor around my chair. And under it. At one time they were neatly stacked–several times, in fact, they were neatly stacked–but lately they’ve made a veritable carpet. The poor cats have had to detour to get to the window for sunbathing. They don’t mind stomping all over me, but heaven forfend their little paws should touch a dust jacket.

Anyway, I scooped up an armload of volumes and borrowed the first line from each. I’ve studied first lines since I started writing fiction and have added quite a few to my initial collection (from Pride and Prejudice and Gone With the Wind).

Expert opinions vary as to what the first line of a novel should do: hook the reader, create tension, tell the story in one sentence. My favorite first line from my work is, My grandfather thinks stop signs cause wrecks. It not only catches the reader’s interest (mine, anyway), but also is literally true. My grandfather did think that. I heard him say it.

Well, whatever. I don’t know much about first lines, but I know what I like. Here are a few of them.


Note: The books pictured here are the ones formerly circling my chair. I stacked them on the futon for picture-taking. This is the futon I’ve said for ten years is on the way out. My husband likes it. The books are now in his place. I don’t know where he will sit. The other end belongs to Ernest the cat.



By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat.

Jacqueline Kelly, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate


He had never told anyone.

Ruth Rendell, The Monster in the Box


It is called Portobello Road because a long time ago a sea captain called Robert Jenkins stood in front of a committee of the House of Commons and held up his amputated ear.

Ruth Rendell, Portobello Road


Or your family.

Sophie Hannah, The Wrong Mother


Time is not a line but a dimension.

Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye


I watch Loretta Singletary hurry up the steps to my house.

Terry Shames, A Killing at Cotton Hill


My eyes glaze over as C. Granger Dockery cracks open yet another egg.

Lyn Fraser, Debits and Credits


The book was thick and black and covered with dust.

A. S. Byatt, Possession


Her eyes sparkled, the most alert deep Mediterranean blue you could imagine, surrounded as they were by a deep-lined gray face, a halo of white hair, the off-white walls of the room, and sheets as ivory as the silk that lines a coffin.

Russ Hall, Goodbye, She Lied


On the morning of Bernie Pryde’s death–or it may have been the morning after, since Bernie died at his own convenience, nor did he think the estimated time of his departure worth recording–Cordelia was caught in a breakdown of the Bakerloo Line outside Lambeth North and was half and hour late at the office.

P. D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman


When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl


Audrey Villeneuve knew what she imagined could not be happening.

Louise Penny, How the Light Gets In


“Now we will all die because of the filthy Roman Catholics,” said Janet.

Frank Schaeffer, Zermatt


The day Eddy Cranny got himself murdered started bad and went downhill from there . . . especially for Eddy.

Janice Hamrick, Death Rides Again


Looking back, it astonished her that none of them had broken down at the hospital.

Joanna Trollope, The Other Family


The man lay still, as still as a piece of meat on a slab, as still as death itself.

Donna Leon, Beastly Things



BETHEL–Mr. and Mrs. Thurman A. Bell announce the engagement of their daughter, Raney, to Charles C. Shepherd of Atlanta, Georgia.

Clyde Edgerton, Raney


My boy, you might think an old woman hasn’t much to say about the living, but your grandmother knows when a person does right by her and when they don’t.

Michelle Hoover, The Quickening


Winters are long in Mattagash, Maine.

Cathie Pelletier, Once Upon a Time on the Banks


Sacraments are what you do in church.

Virginia Cary Hudson, O Ye Jigs & Juleps!


The birds saw the murder.

Ann-Marie MacDonald, The Way the Crow Flies


Agatha McGee had been a resident of the Sunrise Senior Apartments only three days when she realized that she’d lost the diamond brooch her parents had given her when she’d graduated from Staggerford High School in 1927.

Jon Hassler, The New Woman


SUMMERLIN–President Ted Sears of Ballard University announced yesterday that his school has been awarded a $320,000 federal grant to sponsor an innovative project with the halfway house adjacent to the Ballard campus, BOTA House (Back On Track Again).

Clyde Edgerton, Killer Diller


Well, I have broken the toilet.

Elizabeth Berg, Durable Goods


Kathy blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write, at Austin Mystery Writers, and occasionally at SINC ~ Heart of Texas.





17 thoughts on “Lines from the Stacks

    1. Thanks, Cher’ley. The one I forgot to include was Robertson Davies’ “Should I have taken the false teeth?”


  1. Great blog! I have never thought of jotting down first lines, but it is an interesting list and a few of those really intrigue me. I read books that would be thumbs down in an editor’s panel at a conference, because it takes a while to be hooked sometimes. But many people won’t in this culture. I have piles of books around my chair too, and catalogues, etc. My husband recently asked me about something, “Is it in one of your piles?” Love to hear someone else does that.


    1. Thanks, Neva. I periodically straighten up, but within a few days, I’m again surrounded by books. For some reason I think I need them close at hand–I might want to read one of them.


  2. Firsts Lines the bane of authors and joy of readers. I will confess that some of the above intrigued me and others left me flat. What an interesting exercise.
    By the way….book piles are a common theme here also, and the cats think of them as obstacle course. (Oh my) Doris


    1. Some of those lines I should have left out. They’re not quite quite. My cats are part of the reason my stacks of books end up in piles. Then they mince around, pretending they can’t possibly climb over them. Thanks much.


  3. DH and I frequently have discussions about the number of books and magazines laying around. I’d like him to clear out some of his technical stuff and he wants me to cull my novels and writing books. Don’t expect we’ll ever quite agree.

    Some fun first lines. While I’ve tried to have first lines that hook, I’ve come up with any really clever ones. Envy the people who do.

    Fun post.


    1. Thanks, Kate. My husband the minimalist periodically suggests we might donate some of my books to the library’s used book store. I’ve donated a lot already, but I NEED those I have now. Might want to refer to them sometime for a blog post. Might want to read them again. Might have reasons I haven’t thought of yet.


  4. That’s a brilliantly varied and amusing set of first sentences, Kathy. First lines/sentences are important and personally I find that generally the shorter ones have more impact for me. But there’s an occasional long one that does the trick, too. 🙂 Thanks for the smiles such as – “Well I have broken the toilet.”


  5. Great post, Kathy! I liked reading all the first lines. I think the very first might be my favorite. In May and June, I took a poetry writing class and the instructor talked about the importance of a strong first line, but then also how you have to build from that so as not to disappoint because the rest of the poem doesn’t live up to the opening.


    1. Thanks, Stephanie. I’d never thought of it this way, but that’s the challenge in all writing, isn’t it? To maintain the standard you set for yourself. Interesting. I’ll think of first lines in a different way because of your comment.


  6. Very interesting post Kathy. I love the first lines of many novels but have never thought of studying them as closely as you have. Now I’ll have to go through all my favorite books again and re-read the first lines. Thank you sharing this. I hope your husband and the cat forgive you for using the futon!


    1. Thanks for your comment. I first began to notice first lines when an English novels professor commented on the first line of one of Jane Austen’s chapters: “It may be possible to do without dancing entirely.” Husband was gracious about the books on the futon; cat was not. Never mind that cat has his own rocking chair.


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