The Importance of Reading for Writers

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A piece of advice writers hear frequently is to read in the genre in which you write. Sometimes it’s even, “Read ONLY in your genre.” I definitely take exception to that. Reading primarily in your genre is probably a good idea, but if we limit ourselves to that, we’re missing out not only on great stories, but on myriad opportunities to learn something new about our craft.

As a life long mystery reader, I’ve learned the value of foreshadowing. And of paying attention to detail. But along with those things, I’ve found that mystery writers excel at description, especially setting, possibly because it’s so important in creating a mood, and mood is everything in mysteries. Just read James Lee Burke or William Kent Krueger. Burke has nailed the dark, Southern (Louisiana) vibe; Krueger, Lake Superior and the North Woods.

And mystery writers, of course, also excel at pacing and at building tension. If we’re going to hook readers, we better make sure we know how that’s done.

Fantasy writers, aside from showing us how to let our imagination soar, can teach us a thing or two about consistency and logic, because they’re always building complex worlds and systems of magic that must make sense. Think of George R. R. Martin’s books. I often wonder how he keeps track of all his characters, storylines, and the elements of fantasy that are involved. If his stories lacked consistency, all would come crumbling down. Martin is an obvious example that everybody is familiar with, but I’m also thinking of two Colorado writers who are skilled world builders, Hilari Bell and Carol Berg.

My first book, Kissing Shakespeare, is set primarily in Elizabethan England, during a time of great religious turmoil and political intrigue. I love to write about characters who are caught up in sweeping historical events and see what plays out. So it follows that I also love to read about these same scenarios. What people do, how they react in such times, speaks volumes. Great historical fiction writers can redefine character, as Hilary Mantel has done with Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and make us see historical events in a new way.

Contemporary realistic fiction often has great emotional impact, perhaps because of its immediacy, and we can readily identify with character and place. Characters are edgier, more brittle, and often fearless in letting their feelings be known. (See my review of Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes.) And many contemporary writers excel at humor, a la Carl Hiiasen, Joseph Caldwell, and David Sedaris, among others.

Across genres, the essential nature of character, of us, doesn’t change, and we can learn ways to define it by reading widely. And to me, character is everything.

Gorgeous, lyrical language. Spare prose. Evocative descriptions. Dialogue that sparkles. Metaphor, and other figures of speech. Beautiful, haunting language is found across the whole spectrum of fiction, including children’s and Young Adult. Keep post-its and a pen handy while you’re reading. And if you feel that takes away from the experience, go back and re-read later from a writerly perspective.

Broaden your reading instead of limiting it. You’ll notice a difference in your writing. What do you think?

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