Reading while you write – the effect of other people’s fiction on yours

Normally I just write, I have my vague roadmap ready, the car is loaded with my characters, their issues, attributes and relationships simmering away there in the back seat and off I go. My destination is known, some of my stopping off points, some scenic areas are pencilled in for a visit. But I’m open to other places to go: happy to take detours if they are of interest and make the journey richer for all involved.

But before I get into the car I’ve read a great deal about where I’m going, the places I want to see, the food and drink I’ll indulge in, the important or interesting things about the journey and the ultimate destination. In this way I’ve prepared for the trip, know a bit about it already, but not all of it and am free to make my own decisions about just how I’ll get to know this place. After all I wouldn’t be going to this place if I hadn’t done some reading, some research in the first place, otherwise I’d have no idea at all about what I was getting myself into and perhaps that’s not such a wise thing to do. Especially when you’re going on a long journey. Perhaps a weekend away doesn’t require any preparation but anything longer than a week does necessitate some preparation to get the most out of the journey and the destination.

My background reading is usually Fay Weldon and John Irving because they were the two who made me really want to write, who made me feel I could write and I could write like them; about ordinary people, the interior life and how lives are lived, how we endure and recover from normal but terrible things. I read and re-read these two, absorbing their style, voice, nuances, being alternatively just a reader and then a writer looking at their specific techniques and seeing how appropriate they are for my work.

When I have written slightly outside my normal genre – contemporary women, I guess – venturing into YA, Romance or Crime, I have read within those genres to get a better feel for the tone and mood, the voice of the genre. I think you need to have a basic understanding of the genre and the readers of particular genres if you are to write engagingly and effectively for your audience. I guess it’s best to write the sort of books you like to read, then you know instinctively what the reader wants as you are the reader too. Thus the caveat, you can’t write if you don’t read. Some genres, such as Romance, do have their rules and for a reason: readers expect, so you need to follow the rules to deliver. Having said that, you can always subvert the genre, but you need to know it first.

A good writer is first and foremost a good reader, an eclectic reader, who picks ups ideas and information in all sorts of places. In creating fictional worlds that are ‘real’ you must ensure the ‘facts’ of your reality are true. Thus an amount of research is needed to authenticate your settings. It may be about the flora and fauna of the area, the style of architecture, the width of lapels of a particular era, when walkmans arrived. These sorts of details are important and you need to check them out. Thank god for the internet, where five minutes can tell you the ingredients of Laksa soup and the year of the first Parap Market (1982).

But who should you read during the writing of your novel? Tis a thorny question with some subscribing to the ‘read no-one’ else they influence you unduly to the read widely and intelligently and take what you need.

Normally I just read what I like when writing a novel, given it takes several months in between working and children, it seems unfair to enforce a no reading zone as well. The truth is though, between family, work and writing there is generally little time left for serious reading. When writing my first YA novel I was reading a great deal of YA fiction, as well as teaching it. It was already a genre I was familiar with. It was partly why I felt I could write one. It also helped working with teenagers and having my own children. Authenticity comes from your own life.

For my paranormal romance I read some romance fiction, absorbed the rules, joined an on-line community and based a lot of the writing on films I’d seen, specifically Underworld Evolution and anything set in New York. It seemed to do the trick as well as basing it in an area of reasonable familiarity, a swimmer and a publishing house – yes, I’d read enough about publishing to use it as part of the background. The alpha male rule was easy to deal with given my own dealings with such beasts!

For my current novel, Ophelia, being completed for PhD studies, I have read more novels and textbooks related to lies, secrets and confession than I care to recall. I have never embarked upon this level of reading while writing before and while it has in many ways made the writing harder I feel from recent reading that it has made my writing better.

What I have found is that there is an enormous amount of writing – stories – with secrets at the heart of the plot and almost needless to say, the revelation and impact of that secret. All too often in literature the secret keeper is punished, often ostracised from their family or society such as in God of Small Things, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; or in many cases death ensues, Tess, Sophie, Blood Brothers, Great Expectations. The burden of the secret is great but the damage from the revelation of the secret is greater.

I’ll have to ensure that Ophelia remains true to this tradition and that the heroine does fall from grace, and loses more than she ever thought possible: indeed fight against my urge to let her live happily ever after, forgiven and reintegrated into her family and normal life.

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