Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Bookshelf in Your Mind

In my past life, I taught literature. I was an Academic. I looked down my nose at the Nora Roberts and other Fluff that my mom read each summer. I read real Literature. I read the Greats. I forced my students to wade through the greats. And I loved it.

Then I hit a rough patch back in 2008 and I needed happily ever after instead of "Isn't it pretty to think so?" at the end of the books I read. Someone handed me Outlander. Outlander lead to Karen Marie Moning which led to Mary Balogh which led to me bringing home 10 or more romances a week from my local library and devouring them. Eventually, I had to turn to Nora Roberts. I didn't have much else left. And I fell in love with her, too.

At first I told myself (and my husband, who seemed kind of concerned with my sudden change in reading habits) that it was research. I was learning the genre so that I could understand how it worked.  Partially, I was still experiencing a residual academic shame for the scantily clad couples on the covers of the book I was checking out each week.  But I was also partially telling the truth. I really did want to figure out how those writers managed to take stories that seemed like the same plot over and over and make them fresh and engaging. I wanted to figure out what drew me to those stories.

I've read a ridiculous number of books in the last three years, and almost every single one of them was a romance. Reading that widely and deeply did more than just make me happy, it taught me the genre. I always used to tell my students that 90% of the grammar we know and understand, we memorize when we read without even trying to.

I think that's true for writing as well.

The majority of what we know about how to write comes from reading. We intuitively know how to punctuate and represent dialog because we've read dialog. We know where chapters should break, because we've read so many novels that we have an intuitive understanding of where the action drops off. We know how to create drama and avoid cliches (we hope), because we've read both good and bad versions of each.

We each have our own personal narratives about reading. We each have a book that made the difference in our life or an author that we admire and want to emulate. Being writers who focus on romance, we read the kind of novels we want to write, because we love the stories and because each time we pick up a Julia Quinn or a Linda Howard, we are learning something about how to improve our own craft.

But how many of us read beyond our genre?

I don't really miss my past life. I like what I'm reading now, and I don't have any desire to write Great Literature. In fact, I'll be the first to tell you that what we know today as "Great" was mostly all popular at one point or another.* But the books I read before have made me the writer I am now, and I do think that going back to authors who have stood the test of time can help ANY writer learn something about writing. I don't think that a Faulkner or Twain is more important than a Nora Roberts or an Eloisa James, but I do think that sometimes what we think of as Great Literature can help us learn something about how to use language in amazing ways.

If you haven't read a lot of dusty old literature lately, here are a few of my favorites that you might want to try on for size**:

If you want to learn how to craft realistic dialog:
No one does it better than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Did you hate the Great Gatsby in school? Try it again now. Better yet, read his short stories. Most of those were written for magazines and meant to be popular. Plus, Fitzgerald had this way of crafting the most brilliant images from the most unlikely adjective and noun pairings.

Everyone read Mark Twain in school, but go back to Huck Finn as an adult and watch how he is able to capture the way people really talk, curse words and all.

If you want to learn how to show and not tell:
You must pick up Hemingway. Forget what you know about the old guy who went big game hunting and drank himself to death.  Read his early work. In the 1920s he was in his early 20s and still had some of the romantic about him. Read up on his Iceberg Theory before you start, so you understand what his books are doing, and then dive into A Farewell to Arms or, if you want more about writing specifically, A Moveable Feast.

T.S. Eliot- The Waste Land is difficult, but there are enough online guides to help you get through it, and "The Hollow Men" is dark and eerie. Eloisa James referred to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in her most recent book. She has it posted on her website. Eliot had a theory about using images to represent emotion in poetry that can help even novelists.

Do you need to figure out how to craft deep POV?
Try your hand at Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. It's not an easy read, because the 3rd person omniscient narrator keeps switching from one character's consciousness to another's--without warning--but if you can figure out how she makes those transitions, you can figure out how to make your own third person narrators stronger.

Are you writing historicals?
Then I'm sure you've already read every Jane Austen and Bronte Sister already. But you might want to also try some Henry James or Edith Wharton. Both authors were part of the Realism movement, so they were focused on verisimilitude--especially the minutia of everyday life. I know, they're American, but books like Portrait of a Lady and  The Age of Innocence also are really wonderful examples of how to build a concrete world in a novel.

Do you want to read something with a strong voice?
Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is a must. It's narrated by a character named Tim O'Brien and is so compelling that you'll forget that the narrator isn't really the author and that the book isn't a memoir.

Anything by Toni Morrison. Okay, maybe not Love--that one just felt like Morrison doing Morrison. But The Bluest Eye or Song of Solomon or even Beloved, maybe especially Beloved, are completely wonderful. She has this way of capturing the voice of an oral storyteller in complex novels that is simply brilliant. And what she does to language? Wow.

Or if you want something more fun, look to hard-boiled detective writing. The works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler epitomize the straight-talking, cocky American detective.

My favorites for absolutely beautiful, lush writing that takes language and transforms it into art?
William Faulkner- He's rough, but if you start with something like Light in August, he's very readable. If you want a ridiculous challenge, take a look at some of his completely grammatical paragraph-long sentences in Absolom, Absolom!
Cormac McCarthy- He's really dark, but a master of language. All the Pretty Horses is heartbreakingly beautiful.
Dorothy Parker- Her short stories seem simple and fun, but they're doing a lot more than you think.
Ralph Ellison- Invisible Man has some of the most memorable images I've ever encountered.
Zora Neale Hurstone- Their Eyes Were Watching God is a poignant love story told using African American vernacular.

But enough about the writers and books that influenced me before I came to romance-- What's on the bookshelf in your mind? Are there certain writers, "great" or not, influenced your writing? Are there books you know you really should read but just can't quiet make yourself? 

*Seriously, I wrote a whole dissertation on it.
**I studied mostly 20th century and American, so my preferences are definitely slanted that way.


Heather said...

Fantastic post. While I still harbor resentment against many of the required reading novels from high school and college, I appreciate the skill that went into crafting the tight and moving stories.

Louisa Cornell said...

Truly amazing and thought-provoking post, Lisa! I too did a stint as an English literature and grammar teacher. And yes I required my students to read the "heavies" and more important to understand them. I discovered that once they started discussing the characters (and arguing with each other) and the plots and they "why" of why they were required to read it some of the most intriguing conversations ensued. But they also knew I read everything from Mary Balogh to Stephen King. I often told them reading "literature" prepared them to be better readers of everything else.

My mental bookshelf includes 1000's of historical romances, 100's of paranormal romances and urban fantasies and horror and simply paranormals, 100's of mysteries and contemporary romances. Dozens of YA's. I can't even count the Regency research books I've read. And music history.

But, when it comes to "the Classics" I have to include -

Everything by Faulkner, especially The Sound and the Fury

To Kill a Mockingbird

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by Berendt

Anything by Mark Twain

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Anything by Henry James

All of Austen, the Brontes and Georgette Heyer

Ann Radcliffe - The Mysteries of Udolpho

Anything by Sir Walter Scott

Eudora Welty

Lisa D. said...

Heather- I don't blame you. I think there are certain novels that really are more meant for college students, but because they're short or "easy to read," they get taught. Old Man and the Sea? Blech!

Louisa- I love me some Faulkner. But I'll be honest, the first time I read The Sound and the Fury I HATED it. Same goes for Beloved and Catch-22. But not understanding things tends to irritate me, so I read them again and fell head over heels.

M.V.Freeman said...

I know who I need to talk to about the classics! Love your post. The more I read romances, the more I appreciate the classics.

Some of the classics on my mental bookshelf include some of these:

The Odyssey: This book teaches me about adventure--and heros.

The Canterbury tales--taught me about innuendo and a rolicking good time.

Anthem-by Ayn Rand Wow--this book changed my life. It taught me to think.

For current books I read lots of Urban fantsy, YA, Historical, and recently Presents...and I can't get enough.

I love to read. It keeps me motivated to write.

Lisa D. said...

MV- I admire your list. I've never really been able to get into the really old stuff. :)

M.V.Freeman said...

Lisa, you made me laugh! I've always liked the odd stuff. I don't know why I like the old works--but I do (I think some of it has to do with the amazing imagery). Some of the ones you mentioned...are hard for me to read. I feel so ignorant sometimes! :) I'm uber impressed with what you've read and Louisa's list!

Carla Swafford said...

Interesting post, Lisa.

I've never cared for the old guard though I have a deep respect for them. I've tried to read them without success. The one that stands out in my mind was THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. I had to read it for a philsophy class. Considering I love to read (even the back of cereal boxes)and it was a short story, it was torture to finish.

I've read Poe and a couple others I don't remember. Mainly what I do remember of them was how depressed I got. Of course, at the time, I never imagined myself as a writer. So it was only the story I considered important.

When I was a teenager and romances really started up with the hot stuff (Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss). That got my attention and I was so relieved. At the time I was mainly reading westerns written by men. I knew something was missing. And I found it. Romance.

Well, I guess romance is my preference and I don't have a hankering for any other type.

Who influences my writing? I guess anyone's books I admire such as Victoria Dahl, Jennifer Echols, Anne Stuart, Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Lisa Kleypas. The main theme for me with these writers is that they are simply entertainers writing simple stories. I like that a lot.

Lisa D. said...

Carla- I can empathize. The Old Man and the Sea is the worst form of torture. They really only make HS kids read it because it's short and so obviously symbolic that you can teach symbolism. But ug. It's just awful in terms of story. They do that in HS- stuff like The Red Badge of Courage and The Heart of Darkness (which is wonderful if you're ready for it, but not at 16). And I definitely agree that the "greats" can be depressing-- that's why I turned to romance.

Lexi said...

Great post, Lisa. My mother was my high school English teacher, so I read Faulkner, Twain, Thomas Hardy, Thackeray, and Melville. I must admit to throwing "As I Lay Dying" across the room when I got to Chapter Six. "My mother is a fish." WTF? My mother is a FISH????

But, the books on the bookshelf of my mind are the ones that took me away. As a child, anything by Louisa Mae Alcott and "The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew," "The Secret Garden," and "The Little Princess." I also loved the "Little House on the Prairie" books, especially "Farmer Boy."

When I got a little older I discovered "The Hobbit," and "Lord of the Rings." In the seventh grade I found Georgette Heyer and there began my love affair with romance. Haven't looked back since!

Lisa D. said...

Lexi- Yeah, the first time through the whole my mother is a fish things is just plain weird. And then it gets worse plot-wise :) I've never actually read any of the Little House stuff, but I loved the Black Stallion and Where the Red Fern Grows when I was younger.