Over the last few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of reading for research. Most of the books are on technical matters, to help me recall terms I used to know but have mostly forgotten. Some of the more commonly used ones came back right away, but others still look a bit funny. This got me thinking about other purposes for reading.
When I began writing fiction I had to unlearn writing like an academic. I had written a novel and short fiction in college, and been published in student literary and humor magazines. I turned to scholarly work in graduate school, and focused on academic work for years. Returning to fiction meant unlearning one style of composing and recovering other ways of thinking on paper.
Of course I read a lot of crime fiction over the years and that certainly prepared me. I thought in terms of clues and characters, and laying things out in a pattern. But I found that I was terse in narrative passages. To overcome this I turned to writers who were almost prolix. I read classic mysteries such as Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds, and A. Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four. I also read Anne Perry’s mysteries for the leisurely way she sets a scene or builds up a location and setting.
For capturing character and the sinister feeling of a stranger I can think of no better writer to study than Edgar Allan Poe. He goes so deeply into his characters’ feelings and attitudes that I sometimes wonder if he was slowly driving himself mad. Ruth Rendell achieves much the same effect with her many novels. One of the best in my opinion is Judgment in Stone, which follows the inevitable path to murder of an illiterate housekeeper.
Other writers have taught me other skills. Some writers are strong in dialogue, and others can explain the technical working of anything. The latter is a skill no writer should fail to learn. Once I learned the sequence of steps in making a particular machine work, I could see other processes more clearly even if I wasn’t writing about them. I think of this as understanding the bone structure in a face while you are sculpting or painting a portrait.
Setting a story in a location not well known to all readers requires a judicious use of details, knowing what to include and what to omit. James Burke is well known and admired for his rich depiction of Louisiana, and Dana Stabenow has made Alaska her own as well as a vivid location accessible to readers. Nevada Barr explores the natural world in various parks, and Agatha Christie has set novels in ancient Egypt and then contemporary Middle East. I have learned from all these writers how to make a location come alive and ground the mystery. I use India as the setting for the Anita Ray series, a country I first visited in the 1970s.
All books teach us something but not the same thing. Writers have to read as widely as possible, especially in areas that don’t normally appeal to them, if they want to ensure that their work is as strong as it can be. I try to read against my interests to broaden myself. At present I’m reading about a certain sport. I’m not a sports enthusiast but I want to be sure that my descriptions are accurate and that my character’s behaviors are plausible.
Reading with a purpose, as a writer, is far more than reading good literature to expose ourselves to the best the written word has to offer. Reading with a purpose is a way to absorb the skills and abilities of other writers we do not ourselves possess.