Reading Outside Your GenreSi


Always a pleasant surprise when my fellow MWers and I are in sync. Well before I read Stuart’s excellent post yesterday titled ‘Looking At Other Art Forms,’ I had been planning to write about non-genre books (mainly because I’ve read a whole bunch of them lately). This subject has certainly been covered before, but since I believe a writer should be reading as broadly as possible on a regular and consistent basis, I thought it couldn’t hurt to touch on it one more time.

You do read outside the fantasy genre, right? And I don’t mean the occasional science fiction or horror novel, either. For novels, I’m talking about classics and mysteries and romance. In non-fiction I’m talking about history and biographies and memoirs (what the heck is the difference between an autobiography and a memoir anyway?) and religion and psychology and sociology. It’s all fair game, because frankly it’s all useful. From the other genres you can pick up tropes and tricks. From non-fiction you can pick all sorts of useful nuggets you can use in future novels of your own.

But you knew that already, right?

The question is, have you been doing it?

Just to show you that it doesn’t all have to be highbrow or deep academics, let me throw at you the list of books I’ve read in the past month or so. You’ll find plenty of fluffy fun to go with the more serious works. In no particular order:

  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond
  • Twilight of the Gods: The Mayan Calendar and the Return of the Extraterrestrials, by Eric von Daniken
  • American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot, memoir by Craig Ferguson (lunatic host of The Late, Late Show)
  • The Men Who Stare At Goats, by Jon Ronson (non-fic book that was the basis for the movie of the same name)
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Cholera Epidemic of 1854, by Steven Johnson
  • U122: Diary of a U-Boat Commander (1916-1918), novel by Sir Stephen King-Hall, writing as Karl von Schenk, ‘translated’ by Etienne (there’s a back-story behind the novel that’s almost as long as the novel itself)
  • The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (one of my favorite novels; I re-read it every few years)
  • Terror in The Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, by Jessica Stern
  • The Walking Dead vol. 4, (graphic novel (which is a glorified way of saying “really big comic book”)), by Robert Kirkman (I guess this one’s not really ‘out of genre’)
  • The Alchemist, (graphic novel version) by Paulo Coelho
  • Fiction Is Folks: How To Create Unforgettable Characters, by Robert N. Peck
  • I also subscribe to and regularly read Smithsonian and Discovery magazines

What do I get out of these books and magazines? Well, there’s too much to list it all, but let me throw a few highlights at you. I don’t know when/where/how I’ll use these tidbits in my own work in the future, but rest assured I will be looking for opportunities.

Again, in no particular order:

  • De Tocqueville’s observation that the most dangerous moment for governments is when they set about to undertake reform
  • Some operatives will admit that they got involved in terrorism out of nothing more than a desire for adventure
  • Terrorists often suffer from delusions of grandeur
  • When the Mayans revolted against their Mexican overlords, they were on the verge of victory when the Mayan army abruptly broke off fighting to go home and harvest their crops in order to avoid starvation during the coming winter
  • In New Guinea in 1965, one of Jared Diamond’s best workers quit his job in order to go home for the funeral of his prospective son-in-law, where they ate the deceased as a sign of respect. The New Guinean man was quite disgusted at the Western tradition of burying loved ones in the ground
  • Re: the creation of a military intelligence unit: “We need a colonel, three majors, six captains, and fifteen lieutenants to be reassigned to military intell. So what do you do if you get a phone call like that? You think, Ha, Let’s give them all the bindlestiffs and stumblebums. So they did. And that’s who went into military intelligence, more or less globally.”
  • At one time Manuel Noriega took to tying black ribbons around his ankles and placing little scraps of paper in his shoes with names written on them to protect him against spells cast by his enemies
  • Cowards can make for some very interesting characters

There’s more–lots, lots more–but then that’s kind of the point: there’s a wealth of material waiting to be discovered, mined from the treasure-troves of various books and magazines. You really don’t even have to work all that hard for it; just find books on topics that interest you and read with a pen or a highlighter in hand (as long as they’re not library books). It’s fun. Heck my biggest challenge is not getting lost in ‘research.’

So, what have you read lately outside of our genre that you would recommend to the rest of the group, and what interesting tidbits have you picked up in the process?


BTW, on a completely unrelated note, I want to mention that I’ll be teaching a class at this year’s North Carolina Writer’s Network Spring Conference. The conference is next Saturday, April 30th, but registration closes on Monday the 25th. The event is being held at the Greensboro campus of the University of North Carolina in, you guessed it, Greensboro, NC. Admission to the full one-day event is $175, and my workshop on Writing and Selling Science Fiction and Fantasy is part of the morning slate of workshops. More details can be found at the NCWN website.


25 comments to Reading Outside Your GenreSi

  • I am so happy you and Stuart and are letting us read out of genre (lol) and then talk about it! Apologies to Stuart for not getting to his post until today. It was one-a-them weeks!

    I am currently reading 4 books in genre and the following out of genre:
    In Fire Forged (space opera) by David Weber,
    Chattooga by John Lane, which is full of history of the Chatooga river, where I must set a book some day.
    A years worth of Real Simple a magazine, from which I’ve taken some lovely advice to simplify my kitchen-life, and recepies,
    and Studying a jewelry catalogue to clear my mind.
    I am well aware that I should be doing and reading more but I no longer feel the least bit guilty about actually sleeping at night!

  • Here’s a few from the last few years.

    The Count of Monte Cristo (unabridged) by Alexandre Dumas where I learned killing somebody for revenge isn’t nearly enough, you must grind their lives to shreds and hurt everybody around them.

    Why We Kill: The discoveries of a maverick criminologist by Richard Rhodes. Discover the story of the criminologist who went against analyzing statistical evidence and interviewed hundreds of violent criminals to create the theory of ‘violentization.’

    Writers Digest “Elements of Fiction Writing” series and newer “Write Great Fiction” series.

    Arms and Armor by Charles Boutell. Armor from antiquity to the middle ages.

    The History of Hell by Alice K. Turner – A discussion of afterlife across multiple religions, philosophical areas, and combining art and literature. Cool stuff.

    No surprise that my first book is about a half-demon assassin looking for redemption, struggling with revenge, whose friends are worried about him in the afterlife.


  • Faith, I can relate; I’ve been having one of them weeks for a few years now. When does it end?

    NGD, Sounds like you’ve blended your “other” reading with your writing perfectly. Well done, sir. (BTW, The History of Hell sounds fascinating. I may have to go look that one up.

  • Unicorn

    I do love history. I can’t get enough of it. (Although admittedly the beginning of Asser’s “The Life of King Alfred” was mind-numbingly boring. And he was the son of the son of the son of…) Right now I’m studying World War II and the Dunkirk Miracle was just too inspiring for words, the concentration camps just too sickening… There’s a lot to be learnt from the most epic of epic stories, the story of the world.
    Lucky old me, I’m still in school and get exposed to a huge variety of literature. It was in a schoolbook that I first encountered Ursula LeGuin, Robert Frost, Charles Dickens and a host of other favourite authors. My interests are wildly varied anyway, and I’ll tuck into a James Herriot book or the National Geographic just as happily – okay, maybe not quite as happily – as I’ll pick up a Terry Pratchett. Also, Wikipedia is an extremely perilous website for me to visit. I research one tiny detail and end up reading about Down’s Syndrome, Johnny Depp, the Battle of Moscow and several other subjects totally unrelevant to what I was supposed to be researching in the first place.
    Thanks for the post, Edmund. Most interesting. Isn’t “The History of Hell” an utterly fabulous title?

  • Hannibal (Ernle Bradford) – the little guy can really cause problems.
    The Inquisition (Edward Burman) – Nature can cause even bigger problems.
    The Naked Ape (Desmond Morris) – Problems? Oh yeah!
    Dark Justice: A History of Punishnebt and Torture (Karen Farrington) – are we seeing a trend?

  • Unicorn, I’m with you on the history; so many fascinating true stories. The great thing about Wikipedia is that if you’re only using it to research idea for fiction, it’s veracity doesn’t matter. As long as it makes for a good story, the rest is just details.

    Lyn, Yes, and an alarming trend at that… 😉

  • oooh, booklist sharing. Love it. @New Guy Dave – I must pirate your list. That sounds fascinating.

    My recents and in progress:
    The Age of Odin by James Lovegrove – completely in genre, but a fun read.
    The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, transl. by Sonia Soto – literary fiction but only by the skin of its teeth. Both fascinating and disappointing book about book forgery, fallen angles, lost loves, and modern man wrapped in a noir atmosphere.
    Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul by Craig S. Keener – well written theology examining Paul’s dictates on women being silent in church. He argues that these are situational rather than pan-cultural and reflect a response to specific problems in specific churches, not permanent rules. Worth reading for the introductory chapter on biblical interpretation principles alone.
    Nine Things You Simply Must Do by Dr. Henry Cloud – yes *blushing* it’s a self help book. But a pretty good one by the author of The Mom Factor. Best piece of advice so far for me – accept incremental victories rather than wanting everything all at once. An all or nothing mentality can become an excuse for failing to keep trying.
    Image – a journal of art, faith and mystery. Keeps me in touch with literary fiction.
    Bitch magazine – “feminist response to pop culture.” Love it. The name is deliberately ironic since the magazine is neither unnecessarily hostile nor humorless.
    The Naming of Names: The Search for Order in the World of Plants by Anna Pavord- it’s the history of botany as a science from ancient Greece to modern day. It’s full of color illustrations from ancient manuscripts.
    The Inimitable Jeeves as well as The Clicking of Cuthbert by PG Wodehouse – I love Wodehouse. I reread these books like visiting old friends.

  • I love Smithsonian, National Geographic and Scientific American.

    For my WIP I’ve been researching Mesopotamia, so I’ve been reading Thorkild Jacobsen’s The Treasures of Darkness, Jean Bottero’s Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, and Samuel Noah Kramer’s The Sumerians. Interesting stuff, but enough holes in the historical record to play around with and create fiction.

    But, trying to find information on lives of ancient women is difficult. This week, however, I found Women’s Work:The First 20,000 Years:Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. For a modern person, learning what it meant to make cloth, from the fibers, to the thread, to the cloth, and to the finished product and all the social clues hidden in clothing choices has been fascinating. And given me ideas…

  • Sarah, The Naming of Names is up my alley. I’ll need to check that one out. I also like Dr. Cloud’s point about taking incremental victories instead of waiting for everything all at once. Sounds like particularly good advice for writers.

    Em, I’d love to hear more about the social clues hidden in clothing choices. Any chance we can get some details?

  • Razziecat

    I haven’t done much reading out-of-genre recently, but these are some of my favorites:

    Pendragon: The definitive account of the origins of Arthur / Steve Blake and Scott Lloyd -(presents a pretty convincing argument that the historical Arthur was not the king, but the king’s war leader)

    In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood (I learned more just in the preface of this book than I did in school)

    The life and death of a Druid prince: the story of Lindow Man, an archaeological sensation / Anne Ross and Don Robins. (Fascinating read-don’t be put off by the word “sensation”)

    Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life: Jack Santino (I love Halloween/Samhain and this book gives some insight into how an old pagan festival turned into the Halloween we have today)

    A History of Women in America by Carol Hymowitz and Michaele Weissman (stories of women in early America through pioneers, slavery, the wars, industrialization & so on)

  • Ok, Edmund. Here’s a couple examples of social clues in clothing that caught my eye.

    I think we all understand dressing for the opposite sex, right? Well, there’s nothing subtle about string skirts, in a variety of forms, which indicated a girl’s availability as a bride. The Neolithic to Bronze age versions didn’t cover anything “important”. Later versions in traditional European peasant costumes were covered with lozenge (diamond) shaped designs that mimic a woman’s anatomy and attached chains to the skirt waist with rings and keys hanging from it (another rather obvious sexual image). But if she got too old (30s!) and didn’t have children, she had to move the chain to the bottom to symbolize her “wasted childbearing capacity”!!!

    Clothing could have magical properties too. There were protective images sewn into clothing, such as the rose, which is protected by thorns, and is then a symbol of protection for its wearer. Also, spells could be a part of the weaving process itself in a sort of “number” magic using a special number of threads for the warp and a special number of threads for the weft. Slavic red embroideries are usually located at the openings of clothing (neck, wrists, bottom) and meant to discourage demons from crawling in and causing illness.

    Sorry, got carried away. I’m only half way through the book and have already come up with ways of using clothing in my WIP to add another layer of meaning to the story.

  • @ekcarmel – if you’re interested in women and their work in the Middle Ages check out Barbara Hanawalt’s book The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England. Very interesting, if rather grim. One thing that stuck with me was the fact that children often died from pigs – wild pigs roaming the streets would attack small children, even come into houses and eat babies in their cribs. Kids we wouldn’t leave home alone were considered old enough to babysit actual infants. Tells you a lot about child care and their ideas of what counted as maturity and work. Boiling water in large vats for laundry, brewing, and cooking could kill women if the vat tipped over and burned them. I’m guessing that the ancient Middle East had similar problems.

  • Mikaela

    When it comes to fiction, I tend to mix fantasy, romance and crime. Right now, I am re-reading books. I just finished Skinwalker, for the, um third time? Or was it the fifth?
    When I comes to non-fiction, I am slowly reading Age of Fable by Thomas Bulfinch.
    I just downloaded a book about Egyptian gods from Project Gutenberg. Or so I thought. Right now I cannot find it…

  • Well, I’ve been reading a fair amount of Revolutionary War Era history…. I read The New Yorker, a magazine that is NOT just for New Yorkers. Week in and week out it is filled with fascinating stories about everything from the civil unrest in the Middle East, to the latest trends in art, music, theater, fashion, to U.S. politics, to the Barry Bonds steroid trial, to George R.R. Martin’s relationship with his fans. Great stuff, and always thought-provoking.

  • My job involves editing college-level textbooks. We’re not supposed to stop and *read* the books, but even my supervisor admitted to me that it’s impossible not to skim and pick up some interesting facts as we work. Last week I was editing a biology textbook. On Thursday I started a book on abnormal psychology. Everything gets me thinking. I like it.

  • Not long ago, I read Jennifer 8. Lee’s “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles”, which is her foray into understanding how American Chinese food came to be. All those yummy dishes you can order from the local takeout bear almost no resemblance to what actual Chinese people eat at home. It’s closer to party food – imagine a restaurant selling cake, cookies, nachos and Li’l Smokies in barbecue sauce and billing itself as selling authentic American food. I also enjoyed the chapter about General Tso’s Chicken. Lee travelled to Tso’s birthplace, where the real general is revered for his military accomplishments and where no one has ever heard of the dish that bears his name.

    Oh golly, let’s see…in the stack of books next to my bed the out-of-genre titles include

    The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs
    A.J. Jacobs decided to attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year. He would follow the commandments, to be fruitful and multiply, love his neighbor and so on. But he would also obey the hundreds of less publicized rules: to avoid wearing clothes made of mixed fibers, stone adulterers and so forth. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

    Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
    Nope, I’ve never read it. And while I’ve sold a novel already, I can’t think it would hurt to read ways to do it better.

    Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
    Meg Carpenter is broke, and her novel is years overdue. When a book called The Science of Living Forever lands on her desk, she jumps at the chance to review it, starting on a labyrinthine journey that takes her from mysterious beasts of the moor to forest fairies and forces her to wonder if anyone really does want to live forever. This is a literary novel, with fantastic elements, and I’m curious to see if it succeeds in both genres.

    Dexter in the Dark by Jeff Lindsay
    Crime scene investigator Dexter Morgan is not unaccustomed to seeing evil deeds–particularly because he commits them himself. But at a particularly disturbing scene, he realizes he’s being hunted by an adversary so terrifying it scares away Dexter’s inner monster. Not a scrap of fantasy in the place, but I love the way Lindsay explores the mind of a killer.

    The Women (TimeLife Old West Series)
    The Gunfighters (Time Life Old West Series)
    Okay, stop giggling. I’m the first to admit the Time-Life books aren’t the tops in research, but they are a decent place to begin.

  • Great job, all. Sounds like a great all-around list and you can rest assured I will be cherry picking for titles to read myself. Pity that we can’t all get together and do some kind of book swap.

  • @Sarah – thanks for the suggestion. Reading things like that always make me feel grateful for living in the modern world!

  • Unicorn

    Lucky you, Laura. You’re reading a book on abnormal phsycology and just look at all the fine examples you have to study around here! 😀 Sorry, I couldn’t resist. This is after all a job which involves closely studying the figments of our imagination.

  • Years ago I was the subject of a professor’s lecture in abnormal psychology. It’s a source of great pride for me still to this day.

  • @ Misty – The Maass book is aimed at intermediate to advanced writers who have already finished a novel or been published. It is more about fine tuning your craft into a best-seller than it is instruction on how to write a novel. I read it after drafting my first book and only some of the stuff really hit home. I’m going to revisit it again soon and hope that more sinks in this time.


  • NGD, thanks!

    And Ed, I realized today that I forgot about my secret guilty pleasure….books about plagues and epidemics. I don’t know why the plague is so fascinating to me, but whenever I see books about horrible diseases, I have to read them. Guess it’s a good thing I don’t have access to any bioweapon labs, huh?

  • Misty – you are a child of mine own heart! I love books on plagues and pestilence. Old medical texts, the history of medicine, you name it!
    I just finished building a 14 foot wide, 8 foot high floor to ceiling bookcase so I can finally start to unpack about 50 boxes of books I haven’t seen in too long a time. Can’t wait to reacquaint myself with a lot of old friends.
    Ed – I’d be glad to host the book-swap party after I finish filling up my new bookcase!

  • JER

    Ive just pulled four novels off my shelf to start reading. Three Ive read before and one new one.

    Bloodlist by PN Elrod – (one of my favorite authors. Read this book many times) Its about a reporter named Jack Fleming, who wakes up on the shore of Lake Michigan, a vampire. He cant remember what happened to him and must work to solve his own murder.

    Touch the Dark by Karen Chance – (read this twice now and also listened to the audio book.) Cassie Palmer is a clairvoyant who can also see and speak with ghosts. She finds herself stuck between the good guys and the bad guys, both vampires and wizards. Both side want to use her or kill her, Though one wants more than she’s willing to give.

    Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris – (read this once) Sookie Stackhouse finds the powerful vampire Eric wandering naked on the side of the road. Eric doesnt know who he is and worst of all the people who took away his memory want to kill him. Sookie investigation of who and why leads her smack dab into a battle among vampires, werewolves, and witches.

    Dr. Death by Jonathan Kellerman – (new but sounds interesting) A former physician, Eldon Mate aka Dr. Death is found mutilated in a rented van, harnessed to his own killing machine. Psychologist-detective Alex Delaware is asked by his old friend, homicide cop Milo Sturgis, in the hunt for the death doctor’s executioner. But Alex harbors secrets of his own that threaten to derail the partner’s friendship as well as the increasingly complex investigation.

    Also I’m halfway through Skinwalker by Faith Hunter on audiobook. Faith I love it so far. Gonna have to pick up the book.

    Also Im reading Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.

    Im working on a novel about an ex-marine police detective that finds himself in a world filled with vampires, werewolves and many other fantasy creatures who live among us but out of site.

    This will be my second novel. My first one I wrote almost 20 years ago and is as best as I can describe it a fantasy Forest Gump with Monty Hall supplying the goods. It was bad in a way thats painful to read.

  • Good luck with the new novel, JER. Characters & Viewpoint is particularly good. In the same vein, I hope you’ll give the Magical Words book a try.