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.