This is an essay by Susan Sundwall.
Once we avid readers step over the line and become writers, we read differently. Now we don’t just read, we glean. Like some kind of medieval peasant, we pick at words, phrases and concepts as though they were bits of fallen fruit there for our taking. Now, mind you, gleaning is not stealing. Oh no, it’s more like hundreds of little “ah ha!” moments all scattered about in other people’s books and what we find there helps us over the humps as we struggle, hammer and tongs, with our own work. Here are some examples.
Humor – Like funny?
How about Janet Evanovich? Ms. Evanovich created Stephanie Plum and let’s her 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 affections. And Stephanie always manages, with the marginal assistance of her sidekick Lula, to solve a crime in the bargain. What’s not to love? She gives all of us a kind of permission to write zany; to let our imagination and individual sense of humor soar.
Elizabeth George cannot write fast enough for me. I’m pretty sure I’ve read everything she’s ever written. She builds, 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 these characters real, the kind you can hear and smell, become enraged at or pine for, empathize with, sense and know. In that knowing, then, we understand that our own characters must have layers that include virtues, regular battles with the dark side of their own humanity, and flaws—even flaws 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 this way at times, and have bonded hip to hip with this gal.
Think J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Panem in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, or Jan Karon’s Mitford series. Karon taps into our longing for a place where everything, the good and bad, the ugly, the ordinary, and the joyous happens just the way it should, or could, in real life. Her books are character driven and what a charming, quirky lot they are! Father Tim Kavanagh, an Episcopal priest, tools into Mitford and bids us join him as he serves his congregation. He also finds a wife, acquires a stepson and generally shows us what love, patience, exasperation, honor, humor, and faith are all about. From Ms. Karon it seems that plain old life is hardly ever that. Situations from any life, re-worked in captivating language and draped in disguise, can be the catalyst for creating worlds that others will want to visit, if only on the page.
Dead Guys – Uh, Authors of the Past
What author do you know who hasn’t learned something from Mark Twain? 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 its own. True, you don’t hear anyone called a ‘blame fool’ anymore, nor do we expect many of 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 . . .”
If that doesn’t put a picture in your head, I don’t know what will. Go and seek some authors of the past to admire and learn from if you don’t already. You won’t regret it.
Now how about you?
It’s no secret that authors are voracious readers and glean, as I do, from their favorites. But here’s a slight twist on that notion; we can learn as much from a bad example as a good one. So, in a study of contrasts and just for fun, ask yourself these five questions. Then answer them out loud, um, unless you’re reading this while you’re supposed to be working at your day job.
1. What’s the name of the worst book you ever read and probably didn’t finish?
2. Who wrote it (if you can remember)?
3. Why did you hate it; plot, characters, setting, language, concept, your mother-in-law loved it, your ex-boyfriend gave it to you, etc?
4. Why do you think this book was published at all?
5. How are you going to avoid writing a book, or anything, that will give someone a reason to say “that’s the worst thing I ever read”?
Clarifying why we dislike something often puts the focus on the things we want to avoid in our own writing. You can easily turn the five points to the positive and gain insight too, but you’ll want to write those down as your answers will be much longer.
As lonely as writing can be, there are great bunches of good writers out there to emulate. We know we’re not all going to reach star status and some of our ideas stink like last week’s meatloaf. But so what? We have as much reason and right to write as the super stars and we can learn much from them and each other along the way.
Susan writes from her home in upstate New York. Her first mystery, The Red Shoelace Killer – A Minnie Markwood Mystery (Mainly Murder Press) will be available on November 1, 2012. Her numerous poems, essays, and articles have been published in Ideals, Sasee, Catholic Forester, Writer’s Weekly, and Funds for Writers among many others. Go on over to her blog at www.susansundwall.blogspot.com to find out what else she’s been up to.