How does our reading influence our writing? Which books do it for you?

As writers we go on learning all the time – if we didn’t, our writing would soon become static – and there’s no better source of learning than from within the pages of other peoples’ books.  Reading, especially for a ‘new’ writer, has an added appeal because of the possibilities of what we might glean from it.  This is my experience, anyway, and I’d like to share with you here some of the things I’ve learned through my own reading.

From Lisa Jewell I learned to cut the self-indulgent meanderings and crack on with the story, and from Hannah Richell’s Secrets of the Tides how having each chapter represent a certain viewpoint makes for clarity of structure in a multi-pov novel.

JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You taught me that high-concept novels are, probably, the easiest to plot – if only I could think of one – but that I’m far too lazy ever to tackle a subject that requires that much research.

I learned from Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby that a deeply flawed character can still be a sympathetic one, and from the Great God Ian McEwan (I may well kiss the ground in front of him if ever we chance to meet!) I’ve learned to be myself.

I’m reading now The Soldier’s Wife by Joanna Trollope.  I’ve always loved her writing and watched how it’s changed over the years from the high-end romantic fiction known fondly as ‘Aga sagas’ through to novels that are more concerned with the wider issues of relationships and quite literary in style.

From Joanna I’ve learned an important lesson – to me the most important – which is that good writing is all about subtlety; The Soldier’s Wife reminds me of that.  The key is to worm your way deep into your character’s psyche, don’t just know them but be them, see the world not only through their eyes but through their innermost thoughts and feelings – and then convey to your readers those thoughts and feelings in as few words as possible.  I’ll repeat that.  In as few words as possible.

This for me is the hallmark of good writing.  Nothing is over-written, over-described or over-explained; in fact there is often no explanation at all.  But from a few precisely chosen words the reader will know, and will obtain far more satisfaction in knowing rather than being told.

Your experience may be different, of course.  I’d love to hear your views, and in particular which books or writers have been the most inspirational to you as a writer and why.




9 thoughts on “How does our reading influence our writing? Which books do it for you?

  1. Great post Deirdre. I want to reply but I need to think about who has inspired me the most and why. Will ponder on that during my walk along the beach this afternoon and come back to you!
    Julie x

  2. That’s a good point Deidre, I’ve been deliberatly reading books that I want to influence my writing whilst I’ve been writing my great tome at the moment. I used to wonder why, since it can’t be cheating since I’ve never copied anything from anyone, but it occured to me its a bit like accents, I only have to be with someone with a strong accent & I’ve picked it up & I think it is the same with writing.

    For tender emotional writing I love Liz Fielding & I read anything by her when I need to boost my emotional writing. I just love her gorgeous, satin-like prose, it’s just so evocative. I loved Jo Jo Moyes ‘Me Before You’ too and also Susan Lewis ‘No Child of Mine’, the emotional content of both books is just superb and what I want to write but I do have issues with the Susan Lewis book which is about a social worker.

    For character & dialogue I love ‘The Casual Vacancy’ by JKRowling. I got it from the library at first but bought it secondhand once I’d started it. The dialogue is fantastic, you can tell who is talking just by looking at it. Her characters are quite clear too.

    For description I love also Susan Lewis and also Thomas Hardy, whose ‘Tess….’ is one of the few books to have reduced me to tears, I love the descriptions of the dorset countryside and wonderful characters like Diggory Venn. I read somewhere recently that ..’…not many publishers these days would publish Thomas Hardy because of his overlong description,’ but I like that about him. Each to our own I s’pose.

    I also love Rachel Hore for her plotting & lovely settings, Tracey Chevalier for her history and vision. There’s so many lovely authors it’s hard to choose!

    I’m one of the few people who tend to underwrite rather than overwrite, just after I start my novel I despair as it’s so short and have to go back and add detail! I think that’s many years of social services report writing which has taught me to squish down what I’m saying to the tiniest amount! Often to fit in some box on a form..

    I’d love to hear what others use. Just while I’m here, could someone send me the link for the message board? I’m sure I’ve got it but can’t find it in the depths of my inbox! I’m also off to revive my long unused Twitter account, it sounds great fun!

    We’re expecting a litter of mini schnauzers today but there’s no sign of any action from Bella, who will be mum! I’m mooching around her ready with towels & hot water and she’s lapping up the attention!

    I’ll post some pix when they appear! Lynne xx

    • That is quite a question! I read a book by author Susan Kaye, years ago. It was Phantom, the story of the life of the phantom of the opera.
      It was amazing, It just made me cry. She really brought him to life. I felt this boys pain, the depth of his despair. There were times when I had to put the book down. She truly brought him to life. I loved it.

      Rebecca by Daphne Dumaurier. It is so atmospheric.

      I loved Donna Douglas book. The Nightingale Girls. It’s set in the 30s, and is about three girls who become student nurses. They come from different background, and it is the story of their lives and loves. The characters have so much depth, and you feel what they are going through.

      These are just a few things I have learnt from these books.
      Isn’t it wonderful that we can learn so much from different novels. This helps us so much in our writing journey.
      Lorraine x

  3. Hi Deirdre

    Great post and it really had me thinking about who has influenced me and what this has meant for my writing. I love Joanna Trollope too and would love to write that kind of literary end of the spectrum, but I am not sure I have it in me. I love RomComs, can’t deny it! Despite it not being as en vogue, apparently, as it once was, I love to read them and it is what I seem to write ‘naturally’. I have read and been influenced on this by a lot of the RNA stalwarts including Jill Mansell, Jenny Colgan and Judy Astley. I also like Katie Fforde’s books and have been told, as such, that I have very ‘British’ tastes, whatever that means!

    I have wondered lately if I should change my reading preferences in order to read what is currently ‘in’ and this therefore might help me write something more marketable. For me Erotica is a no, no, however. Not because there is anything wrong with it (whatever floats your boat!), but because it actually makes me laugh more than RomComs, but for entirely the wrong reason. Maybe I am just too British, just too repressed, but in any case this counts that genre out for me.

    I also think that trying to write what sells, rather than to be true to yourself as you say, is a big mistake. As I have said on my journey pages, I tried to write an HMB once because I knew they would consider unpublished writers. Even though I’d hardly read any and they say themselves how important it is to read loads of the line that interests you. Maybe that’s why it didn’t work, who knows? Either way I’ve learned a lot from that experience too.

    I am now writing a YA and hoping that I have found my voice for this. Since it crosses the boundaries into fantasy and timeshift, I have read a range of authors in this genre including Nicholas Sparks, J K Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. I am writing for the younger end of young adult and as such, perhaps there are even elements of the David Walliams or Roald Dahl creeping into some of the characterisation – I should be so lucky I know!

    Thanks for posting such a thought provoking topic!

    Jo x

  4. Hi Deirdre

    I’ve had a think and, if I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve really read a book and translated it directly into learning points. I know what I like and what I don’t like and I guess on some level that has influenced my writing but certainly not consciously.

    I think my earliest inspiration was Virginia Andrews. At about age 13, a school friend loaned me Flowers in the Attic. It was a fat book; fatter than any I’d read up til that point but I was in tears by the end of chapter 1 and I think that’s the first time a book had ever made me cry. At that point, I probably became really conscious of what a ‘page-turner’ meant in a book that didn’t involve The Famous Five. Over the next decade, I brought the whole Flowers and the whole Heaven series and read and re-read them all. They fell apart from over-use! I haven’t done that with any books since. If I look back, what I got from those books was characters, dilemmas, emotions and an amazing plot.

    My mum adores Catherine Cookson and I started reading her books in my early-mid teens too and I felt the same about them. It’s therefore odd that romcoms became my genre but I think it was the films that hooked me first before the books. My favourites are Lisa Jewell, Sophie Kinsella, Alexandra Potter, Jill Mansell and Marian Keyes. They make me laugh, cry, and have that “ahhhh” moment of satisfaction at the end. If I could achieve that through my book, I’d be the happiest woman alive!


  5. Hi Deirdre,

    A great post and definitely one to get us all thinking. I would agree with many of the opinions above, in that different books can offer different things whether we are looking for displays of excellent dialogue, descriptive and beautiful prose.

    What I love to do is read a book that is recent (i.e. the author published it recently) and then I go back to the first book they ever got published and read that. It’s a great way to see how they compare! Sometimes it is encouraging in that their early books aren’t quite as polished as the later ones, although this backfires sometimes and can be quite disconcerting if an author’s earlier books are brilliant too.

    I think JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You is an excellent example of how a writer can change their writing genre…I think most of her others tend to be historicals. I read The Last Letter From Your Lover which I thought was excellent but it is very different to Me Before You which I loved too.

    I think the key is simply to keep reading and it sounds like we all love to do that 🙂

    • Thats a good idea Helen, to read from different periods of a writers life. I too loved ‘Me Before You’. Often writers changing genre are advised to choose a new writing name so those expecting, say, a detective thriller, aren’t dissapointed when they get a romance or similar. Presumably Jo Jo chose not to.

  6. Hi Deirdre,
    What an interesting and thought provoking post! Like Julie I had to give this a bit of thought before I sent you a reply. I have definitely read and re-read books to learn how to write. Whether it’s worked or not is an entirely different question!
    When I first started writing my novel I got a lot out of re-reading Jennifer Crusie’s romantic suspense novels. If you’ve not read any of them then I highly recommend them. Guaranteed to raise a smile! I’ve also gone back to the Mary Stewart novels that I read as a teenager for some help on how to combine the suspense with the romance.
    But since I got more seriously into the novel I’ve found it pretty difficult to read fiction. As a lifelong book addict this has been a major downside. Now I’m so very nearly finished (started my last chapter on Saturday) I’m looking forward to catching up on my TBR pile which is now pretty huge!

  7. Loved hearing all your various ‘takes’ on this, and have picked up a few new authors to add to my reading list too, thanks.

    Alex, what you said about finding it difficult to read fiction while you were writing resonates with me. I don’t have to stop reading altogether but have to be careful what I read. Over Christmas, and well beyond, I admit, having decided I needed educating on the literary front, I read Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. Whilst I could appreciate the beauty of the language and enjoyed the book for its own sake, the slowness of it brought my own writing to a virtual standstill. I don’t why it should do that but it did.

    In order to write contemporary fiction, if I read it has to be in the same genre, and even then I have to choose carefully. It’s weird how for me one thing influences the other so easily. Maybe it says something about me and my writing, not necessarily something good! But it’s horses for courses and isn’t it great how we’re all different.

    Deirdre x

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