Reading Across the Board

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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?

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12 comments to Reading Across the Board

  • Misty, you have always (despite your aversion to reading romance 🙂 ) been a far better read (and far wider read) person than I. I am reading little outside of UF right now, trying to get a grip on where the genre is heading in the next few years. I have 12 left out of a stack of about 15. I am reading a book about shape-shifting dream-demon killer in a world where zombies appeared in only one town. DEADTOWN. It’s well-written, and the writer has successfully made me believe her world. Which is where I think we are heading – to places and books where the worlds are fully realized. Which helps me not one iota. (laughing)

    When I can steal it back from Mama, I’ll finish AJ Hartley’s Will Power (she stole it and ran screaming in excitement to her reader pals) And a thriller, FIRST DEGREE by David Rosenfeldt.

    And you gave me abook from the UK I have to start. It’s staring at me from the stairs.

  • Great advice, Misty. Sometimes, bringing elements in to your genre from another one is precisely what your book needs to make it feel fresh. And thanks for the plug 🙂

  • I’ve been an advocate for reading outside your chosen field for a long time. IMHO, it’s crucial toward improving one’s writing. As for on my TBR stack right now — I’m reading The Manticore by Robertson Davies which is a mainstream character-driven novel. Next is Book 2 in John Jakes Kent Family Chronicles (historical fiction). Then it’s back into genre for a bit.

  • I’m reading the Faded Sun Trilogy from CJ Cherryh. Started a bit slow for me, but I’m liking it. I’m running out of TBR books. Need to get more. Need to get more money to get more…

  • Gabaldon submitted the book to publishers as SF/fantasy and was insulted that they suggested it be marketed instead as a romance. Then they explained the numbers ($), and she changed her mind.

  • Mikaela

    I have a bunch of non-fiction that are calling my name.
    Herbal Simples by WT Fernie
    Bulfinch’s Mythology
    Najavo Weavers by Gladys Reichart
    Elizabethan Demonology by Thomas Spalding

    Most of them are free from Gutenberg. I’ll have to clean them up at bit first, though. Adding a table of content, etc.

    I read fiction too, but I am in the mood for non-fiction right now.

  • I started reading (Harlequin) romance a few years back and have learned to embrace it – though it took some time to learn not to hold it in disdain, as I’d been raised to do by friends and family. Now I’m exploring it as another genre I’d like to write in.

    I’ve recently enjoyed the royal series by Rhys Bowen (Royal Pain, Royal Mess, Royal Flush, etc, historical mystery).

    Non-Fantasy On the TBR shelf & list right now:
    Bitter, Sweet by Laura Best (Canadian historical YA)
    Nice Recovery by Shari Green (bio)
    All of Chris Humprhies’ Jack Absolute books (Historical adventure, pre-Canada Canadian)
    Red Snow by Michael Slade (gory thriller set during the 2010 Olympics, which I really wish I’d had the chance to read when the Olympics were in town)
    The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi
    As for Diana … I see her every year at the local writing conference I attend in a few weeks, and although I’ve been working on it, I have this thing about some of the writers I often see in person and being able to read their work. Maybe I’m daunted by her following, both in person and on the writing forums we mutually visit, and maybe for awhile I was going through a phase where I wanted to disassociate the writer from the books and stop just being a fangirl. (Maybe it’s just stubbornness. I am still getting over my automatic resistance to “you should read” suggestions from friends, and people keep telliing me to read it.) I have enjoyed the chapters she’s read aloud for the forums-only party we have on the Saturday, though. So I’ll keep working on it.

  • Because of all the sf/f reading I HAVE TO do for IGMS, I read out side the genre a lot. Current TBR pile includes non-fic: Ghosts of Everest, The Search for Mallory & Irvine; Teller of Tales, the Life of Arthur Colnan Doyle; 1434, The Year the Chinese Visited Italy; and The Airmen and the Headhunters. Out-of-genre fiction pile includes Cat Chaser by Elmore Leonard; Katastrophe by Randall Boyll; and YA novel The Last Dog on Earth by Daniel Ehrenhaft.

  • Sarah

    I got tricked into reading outside the fantasy/SF genre recently because I love Ursula LeGuin’s work. I picked up Malafrena figuring anything she wrote was worth a try. Mind you it is worth the try, but I spent the first 30 pages thinking a wizard was going to come around the corner any minute or something like that.

    I’m reading with more of an eye to craft these days and from this book I’m learning two things 1) omniscient narration and description heavy prose can still be quite moving, but they have a different and quieter kind of emotional impact than the tight POV we usually use in modern SF/fantasy. 2) I used to want to write like this, but I think I’m better at and happier with the close perspective POV. I’d still like to be able to write dense, lyric prose, but most of the time I’d rather read and write dialogue heavy, limited 3rd POV that gets the reader living the book through the character’s eyes. The writing is Malafrena is like complex classical music – beautiful and engrossing to listen to, but I can’t sing along with it. I like to be able to sing along sometimes. (Okay, it’s a flawed analogy. Bach wrote fantastic choral music for one. But you get the picture.)

  • On my TBR shelf: The Devine Comedy, (Translated by Longfellow) Dante; Disease and History, F.E. Cartwright; A History of the Arab Peoples, Albert Hourani; The Sword Dancer series (again), Jennifer Roberson; Catch the Lightning (again), Catherine Asaro; Farewell to Arms, Hemingway.

    I’m all over the map, all the time. It’s Barnes and Noble’s fault, of course. They have all those books!

  • Unicorn

    Sorry to be commenting late, but the electricity was off since yesterday evening… sigh.
    Apart from fantasy, I enjoy books on folklore, myths and legends, especially Arthurian legend. Any King Arthur retelling finds itself on my To Be Read pile.
    Historical fiction is also a great favourite, especially Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels. Sword Song was the best, but The Sword in the Circle is another To Be Read book. Nonfiction-wise, the James Herriots are my favourite.
    I can’t abide romance either. Its time will come, I think.
    Unicorn

  • Hi Misty — [Waves from Canada]. I LOVE Ellis Peters. The Cadfael books are brilliant, and beautifully written. Some of my favorite reads in recent years have been outside the genre — David Guterson, Tim Winton, and others. Not sure hat I’m going to read next, but yes, reading both in and out of genre is crucial to good writing. And it’s just fun.