Writing Notes: Influences

This week I’m packing up a lot of stuff (new carpet, with any luck), and that includes the bookshelves in our bedroom. Last night as I was taking books off the shelf and putting them into a plastic tub for temporary storage, I looked down and was amused to see the variety of genres represented at the top of each stack. A werewolf novel by Susan Krinard, a James Rollins adventure, a horror novel by an author who’s name I can’t remember (or pronounce), and a copy of The Mole People – a documentary about the people who live beneath New York City. Just to the side, a Harlequin Blaze (“Temptation”) and waiting to be added was Stephen King’s “On Writing” alongside  horror novels by Richard Laymon, Dean Koontz and Douglas Clegg. I’d already packed up the Harlequin Blaze and Intrigue stacks, along with Tess Gerritson, Jennifer Cruisie & Michael Crichton. There were even a couple of Richard Paul Evans books in there, and an errant Trixie Belden who somehow migrated from her normal shelf in the office.

I have always been a very eclectic reader. Genre means nothing to me if the story draws me in. I can happily get lost in outer space, other worlds, or 16th century England and everywhere in between. I’ll read pretty much anything as long as I’m interested in the premise. There are only two genres that are light on my shelves (light, not non-existent), and those are young adult and fantasy. Young adult because I’ve always been “older” than my age, even as a child and I just never enjoyed many of those books (Lemony Snicket is a very notable exception, and I have the Harry Potter books, though I stopped reading at book four). My issue with fantasy is one of descriptive writing – epic fantasy bores me like nothing else…I don’t really care for long, drawn out world-building, I just want the story and a general idea of where things are happening. I did really enjoy the C.S. Lewis books and shorter fantasy like the Chronicles of Narnia. With those two genres, it really just boils down to stylistic preference, and I have read enough of each to know what I like and what I don’t.

It’s fascinating to me to think of how much all those different authors taught me without either of us really realizing it. Over the years I’ve been reading and soaking up all these storytelling techniques and tricks unintentionally, but when I look back on it, I can see (in general) where certain skills came from. There’s no better place to learn tension control than between the pages of a good or horror novel. Character arcs are more pronounced in romance novels, and cliffhanger scenes abound in most thriller/suspense stories to keep pages turning. Mystery is the ultimate plotting lesson, as all the clues have to build and add up at the end for it to work. Inspirational novels are fabulous for learning how to explore a character’s motivations without long-winded internal monologues, and sci-fi is a nifty lesson in how you can make just about anything plausible for the reader if you think it through far enough (and what happens when it fails too). Literary novels, poetry and speculative fiction teach us to play with language, that there is more than one way to tell a story, and sometimes that way can be beautifully vague and left open for interpretation. And they also teach us that stories don’t always need a firm plot – a story really can be just a story about a slice of life, and still be enjoyable, poignant, funny and fulfilling.

I’m currently reading The Donzerly Light, a suspense novel by Ryne Douglas Pearson, and The Big Sky, By and By, a collection of stories about Montana personalities by local journalist Ed Kemmick.

Do you read widely? Are there any genres you don’t read, as a rule? If you’re a writer, is there one genre that has influenced your writing more than others, or do you draw from a variety of them? What are you reading now?


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2 comments on “Writing Notes: Influences

  1. Carol

    To be honest, I don’t know how anyone can be a writer and not read a lot, and the more genres the better.

    I definitely read a wide range of genres. About the only ones I don’t read a lot of are Westerns (although I love Zane Grey’s books about the Sacketts) and Historical Romance (which I OD’d on a few years ago). Other than that I read pretty much everything from YA to the Classics and everything in between.

    What genre has influenced my writing the most? Apparently science fiction! I read a lot of science fiction when I was younger and it seems to be spilling out in my writing now. 🙂

  2. Ardee-ann Eichelmann

    I do NOT read Horror novels, too many bad dreams. I am not even going there. I lean toward literary fiction when I am able to read but also like other fiction genres. I don’t have to get into “heavy” books. I do like character driven novels, plot holes I can usually forgive if the characters are strong and well defined. I just like to read and when I can read I enjoy every minute of it. In closing let me say that I can read cookbooks the way some people devour novels. I love to read recipes and get new ideas. Cheers, Ardee-ann