I’ve always been an avid reader, but since I’ve become an author, I read differently. Now I don’t just read, I glean. Like some kind of medieval peasant, I pick at words, phrases and concepts as though they were bits of fallen fruit there for my taking. Now, mind you, gleaning is not stealing. Oh no, it’s more like hundreds of little “ah ha!” moments all scattered about in my favorite author’s works and what I find there helps me over the humps as I’m struggling, hammer and tongs, with my own work. Let me give you some examples.
Humor – Boy, do I love doing funny! And nobody does funny for me quite like Janet Evanovich. When I finished reading my first Stephanie Plum novel, I came to the sudden realization that there was at least one author out there whose sense of crazy was as serious as my own. Her creator let Stephanie do wacko stuff like accidentally blow up cars, burn down funeral homes, take her Grandma Mazur along on a bounty hunt and have two gorgeous men (Oh, Ranger) vying for her affection. And Stephanie always manages, with the marginal assistance of her sidekick Lula, to solve a crime in the bargain. What’s not to love?
Characterization – Elizabeth George cannot write fast enough for me. I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything she’s ever written. I’ve learned many things from her, but most of all she’s taught me what it means to build, layer by layer, trait by trait, characters worthy of adoration. In fact, if you blindfolded me and set me in a cold interrogation room in a London police station, I’d know the exact instant that Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley walked into the room. I’d know if he had Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers or his wife, Helen, with him, too. Why? Because Ms. George has made them real people for me, the kind you can hear and smell, become enraged at or pine for, empathize with, sense and know. In that knowing, then, I’ve come to understand that my own characters must have layers that include virtues, regular battles with the dark side of their own humanity, and flaws—even flaws my readers will dislike. As an example, take Lynley’s sergeant, Barbara Havers. Besides being a darn good investigator, responsible with her mother and tenderhearted towards children, Barbara is also overweight and a bit of a frump in her manner of dress. These last two are not exactly character flaws, but still, I see myself in this way at times, and thus I’ve bonded with this character big time. I’ve even given my own amateur sleuth, Minnie Markwood, a weight problem, though she dresses rather better than either Barbara or me.
Dead Guys – Uh, Authors of the Past – What author do you know who hasn’t learned something from Mark Twain? I mean, the guy was such a genius, if you’d never seen him, you might have thought he was a woman. Well, almost. I recently re-read Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and oh, the language. Not anything like what we sometimes rely upon these days to deliver a story, but colorful and in a class all it’s own. True, you don’t hear anyone called a “blame fool” anymore, nor do we expect many or our readers to know what a “chaw of tobacco” is, but I’ll bet you a dead cat in a gunnysack we could all ratchet up the color in our own writing by studying Mr. Twain. Read this tidbit from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to get a good feel of what I mean. In it, Aunt Sally has been looking high and low for the shirt Huck and his friend Tom have stolen from her clothesline. From her tone of voice and her cross words, Huck is certain he’s been caught out.
“My heart fell down amongst my lungs and livers and things, and a hard piece of corn-crust started down my throat after it and got met on the road with a cough, and was shot across the table, and took one of the children in the eye and curled him up like a fishing worm . . .”
Has the man put a picture in your head, or what? I adore Mark Twain. He’s first among the long gone authors I admire. Charles Dickens is a close second and then comes Robert Louis Stevenson whose “A Child’s Garden of Verses” is my absolute favorite book of poetry.
So, fellow writers, who do you read and glean from? C’mon, fess up. Without realizing it you’ve probably incorporated some of their ways into your own. And if you do realize it – even better. You’re on a path taken by millions of excellent writers and you can count yourself among them.
Keep the faith. Keep writing.
Image: Free Digital Photos