No matter what our genre, we authors – traditionally published, self-published and aspiring – can agree to one absolute truth: All writers are readers first and foremost! We scribblers are influenced heavily by what we read. Some books make a positive impression, some a negative one. Then there are some that have made such a lasting impression on us that aspects or features of them make their way into our own writing.
It’s a given that, as a romance writer, I read a lot of women’s romantic fiction. I simply love a good falling-in-love story. But romance isn’t the only thing I read. Like every reader, I enjoy lots of genres from true crime to mystery and suspense, from historical non-fiction to classic literature. Each book I read has influenced me in one way or another as a writer.
Inspired by this Bustle article, 12 Authors You’ll Love No Matter Your Genre, I’ve decided to make my own list … with a twist of course 🙂
In no particular order, here are my top five picks of non-romance novels that inspired me – and that continue to inspire me – as a writer:
American novelist and essayist William Styron was born in Virginia in 1925. In 1979 one of his best-known novels, Sophie’s Choice was published. I read Sophie’s Choice in 2001, in my first year of university (and I know this because I keep a book log). I won’t deny it’s a heavy subject – a Polish woman’s tragic history in the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, and a horrifying choice forced upon her that, in the end, is her undoing. But this novel was my first encounter with Styron’s writing style.
It has been described as “dazzlingly verbose” by one blogger on The Wall Street Journal. While I love that description, I’m not sure I agree with it. It wasn’t verbosity that I admired about Styron’s writing, it was his dexterity with words, and how he combined them in a wonderfully fluid way which made me stop and really ponder each thought he touched on. Here is one of my favourite passages from the novel as an example:
Someday I will understand Auschwitz. This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will ever understand Auschwitz. What I might have set down with more accuracy would have been: Someday I will write about Sophie’s life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world. Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response.
The query: “At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?”
And the answer: “Where was man?”
As you can see, there are no big words, no abstract references. It is highly intelligent writing made accessible to all readers.
Sometimes writers – especially literary writers – get too caught up in verbiage. When that happens, it forces the reader to pay attention less to the story, and more to the way it is written. It’s something I find unfortunate, because what is a writer if not a storyteller? In Sophie’s Choice, William Styron demonstrates that “dazzling verbosity” can be subtle. It doesn’t need to be verbosity for the sake of verbosity.
More importantly, he demonstrates that subtle verbosity, or perhaps dexterity with simplicity – can be incredibly poignant.
Another novel set during the second world war, The Eagle has Landed was published in 1975. It has the same fast pace that one would expect of a thriller suspense. But what made a lasting impression on me was how completely I fell in love with the characters.
Think about it: a band of disgraced German soldiers sent to England on a suicide mission to assassinate Churchill … and they manage to capture the hearts of not only the villagers whom they were meant to deceive, but also the hearts of the readers? What an incredibly innovative concept for a thriller novel.
It was so well executed that by the end, I was bawling my eyes out. Literally … it wasn’t a pretty picture. I adored every one of Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Steiner’s men, and I was devastated when they didn’t survive. I was left feeling like I had lost real friends.
That is a talent: making readers love characters – even, or especially, ancillary characters – so much, they feel like personal friends at the end of the story.
Anyone who knows about Bill Bryson knows they’re in for a good laugh when they pick up one of his books. The first of his novels I read was A Walk in the Woods. I do not recommend reading this book in public. You will laugh out loud, and you will receive strange looks from passersby … I learned this the hard way.
Bill Bryson has a unique way of taking a factual sentiment or statement and turning it into something that is belly-shakingly funny. I admire his humour. I admire how easily and naturally it is put to paper.
Here’s a snippet from A Short History of Nearly Everything:
“In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.”
I don’t have a snippet from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid itself, because Bryson’s humour tends to extend over several paragraphs. Now that I’m looking at the book, I can’t seem to find just one that’s short enough, or that is the funniest, because I’m honestly chuckling all over again as I read.
Moranna MacKenzie isn’t the obvious kind of heroine in this quietly insightful novel. She’s fighting the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Because of this, she can come across as obnoxious, even to the reader who is aware of her difficulties and sympathetic to her story. Despite this, I fell intensely in love with her. In An Audience of Chairs, Joan Clark creates a character whose soul you can look right into and understand.
In reading about Moranna MacKenzie I saw Clark’s unique ability to write a difficult character without having to over-explain her motivation to readers. She reminded me that, while characters have flaws, issues, backstories, and a whole host of other baggage (and by calling it “baggage,” in no way do I mean to downplay the seriousness of mental health issues), their actions don’t need to be overtly linked back to those flaws and issues for the reader’s sake. Also, she reminded me that a character’s baggage, however mild or severe it might be, can quietly exist in the background. Sometimes that baggage should quietly exist in the background to let the story take centre stage.
It’s an inspiring talent to see in action, to say the least.
Much like William Styron, Kate Morton has a way with words. But where she differs from Styron is in her ability to manipulate words in order to evoke an atmosphere. It’s much like the talent for which Charles Dickens is famed – incidentally, she once acknowledged that Dickens is someone she tries to emulate as an author.
To give an example of what I mean, here is the reader review I gave it on Goodreads back in April of 2013:
The pleasure and the brilliance in this book is the telling of the story, the way it is told. It is a slow-paced, haunting read. Morton does a brilliant job of creating an atmosphere, one in which the reader can get lost for hours, and pulls together such stunning, innovative language to make her descriptions. Take, for example, her crafting of a long-forgotten pool:
“… I emerged through a rusted gate to find a neglected bathing pool laid out before me … The edging stones were coated in moss and gaps had appeared between them, so the pool was fringed now by kingcups and ox-eye daisies, yellow faces vying for the patchy sunlight. Lily pads grew wild across the surface, one tiled over the other, and the warm breeze rippled the entire skin like that of a giant scaled fish.”
For readers who love language, who love the texture and form that words can give an idea,The Distant Hours is absolutely intoxicating!
So there you have it. My top five books that inspire me as a writer. No doubt I will come across more in the future to add to this list. But that’s for another time. For now, here’s a question for you:
Which books inspire you? What are some of those lesser known gems that have left a lasting impression on you as a writer? What about as a reader? Anything you’d recommend?