A number of years ago, I had the flu. I’d never had it before, so I didn’t realize how debilitating it could be. I spent the better part of two weeks able to do little else but sleep, roll over, sip cool drinks and read. Oh goodness, how I read. I usually keep a TBR (to be read) stack next to the bed, but when you can’t take six steps away from the bed without fainting, you end up going through any ordinary TBR pile pretty fast. I had finished the last book from my pile and was mildly panicking that I had nothing else to read, when I noticed a copy of Outlander, the now-very-famous romance by Diana Gabaldon. Faith had recommended it to me a few weeks before, but I hadn’t read it. It was romance, after all, a genre I thought I’d successfully explored and left behind in my teens. It was either read the romance or lay in bed sick and bored. I opted to try the book. And was pleasantly surprised to discover a bit of fantasy in a story I was prepared to dislike. It’s not a true fantasy, per se. There are no magic spells, no tomes of arcane knowledge or artifacts to rescue from a power-hungry monarch. The only fantastic element is the time travel through the standing stones, which takes up a couple of pages in a several-hundred-page chihuahua killer. But it was enough. And I found myself thoroughly enthralled by the romance, in spite of myself. I read the rest of the books in the series after I got well. A genre I thought I hated wasn’t so bad after all.
We talk a good bit about the important role reading plays in fine-tuning our writing. It’s essential to spend time reading in the genre we intend to write, so we know what’s been done and what hasn’t, how the successful writers pulled it off and how to avoid the mistakes the unsuccessful ones make. But it’s equally important to read outside of genre. There are amazing writers in romance, mystery and thriller, all of whom have things to show us. Just because we write about magic and supernatural events doesn’t mean there’s no room for a little romance or mystery in what we offer to the reader. On the contrary, a great fantasy story has elements of many genres, all of which serve to add layers of richness and depth to a basic story.
If you’re not sure what genre to try to get you started, look for similarities in what you already enjoy. If you like epic fantasy in the Tolkienesque medieval style, check out some of the great historical mysteries by Ellis Peters, Sharan Newman and Michael Jecks. Are you a steampunk fan? Elizabeth Peters, author of the Amelia Peabody mysteries, can bring you a taste of the period. If you dream of writing about adventure on the high seas, immerse yourself in Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, and for swashbuckling fun, there’s Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels. If your taste runs to powerful magical artifacts and deadly chases, try thrillers by A J Hartley or Preston & Child. Begin with non-fantasy novels that have similar elements, and soon you’ll find yourself opening to a whole new world of reading and writing.
At the moment, my non-fantasy TBR pile includes Lindsey Davis’ Alexandria (her 19th Falco novel, a murder mystery set in Egypt in AD 77), The Cowboys (from the TimeLife collection), and Voodoo Histories (about the role of conspiracy theory in modern political thought.) What’s on your stack?