Monday 27 July 2015

Ten Authors Who Influenced Me (or, You Are What You Read)

A year ago I wrote about five books that influenced me as a writer. So for this week's post I thought I'd expand on that and talk about the authors who influenced my writing style...

What makes a writer? A huge imagination, obviously, combined with life's experiences and the burning need to write, even with the knowledge that what you write might never be read by anyone other than yourself - or your mum/spouse/bestie. (OK, that sounds really sad, but it's A Writer's Thing. We're used to it, we're over it, and we still don't let it stop us doing it.)

Something else I believe makes a writer are the books we choose to read. I've never understood writers who say they don't read - anything. As a writer you can learn so much from reading other people's books, absorbing how to create plots and characters without even realising you're doing it. Stephen King said it best in his book, On Writing:

"If you don't have time to read,
you don't have the time (or the tools) to write.
Simple as that."

So, apart from Stephen King, which authors influenced me?

For as long as I can remember, I've loved to read. I was lucky, I came from a family of book addicts. I inherited my mother's Enid Blyton collection and a hefty Hans Christian Andersen omnibus from my father. I still own a copy of Enid Blyton's fairy tales, published in the 1930s and now falling to bits, for it was well-loved both by me and my mother. In contrast the Hans Christian Andersen book, while almost as old, is immaculate, possibly because many of the stories weren't exactly happy ever after.

From fairy tales I moved onto adventure stories; Enid Blyton's Famous Five and her Barney Mystery stories were my favourites. (The Ring O'Bells Mystery even made an appearance in Nemesis). In those days Enid Blyton was considered very unfashionable and I had to build my collection from second-hand stores and jumble sales.

Around the age of ten I had a short-lived obsession with wanting to be a ballerina/movie star/rock singer, and discovered Noel Streatfeild. I particularly loved Ballet Shoes and the sequels Curtain Up (also known as Theatre Shoes) and The Painted Garden (Movie Shoes). Thursday's Child also made a huge impression. The heroine is strong and not always likeable, it's set in the past and there is a mystery to solve. Without realising it, I'd found the type of book I love to read most.

When I hit my teens the fashion was for angsty teenage books, so I went straight onto fiction for adults. First I worked my way through my grandmother's collection of romantic suspense. Then, while on a rainy holiday to the Isle of Wight, I discovered Jilly Cooper, before moving on to those big fat glitzy books by Jackie CollinsSally Beauman and Judith Krantz. It certainly was a big jump from Enid Blyton and Noel Streatfeild but oh, I loved those books! They were so glamorous; always set in exotic locations with sexy characters (male and female), high stakes and a mystery involving someone's parentage or murder attempts by a jealous rival. Reading those books definitely influenced the first novel I wrote, A Girl's Best Friend (which I've blogged about here).

By the tail end of the 1990s the fashion for books about strong, independent women waned and I found myself reading less romance and more crime/thrillers. I discovered Harlan Coben, loving his twisty plots that usually had some family secret at the heart, and also Kathy Reichs for her strong heroine and clever forensic clues that I always failed to spot. (I hate guessing the bad guy two chapters in!)

At the end of the 2000s I was given my first Kindle, which opened up a whole new world to me. Suddenly I had instant access to thousands of authors I'd never heard of - along with genres I'd never heard of either. I never really got to grips with steampunk or stories about shape-shifters,  but I rediscovered my love of romantic suspense - something I'd first discovered when I'd raided my grandmother's bookshelves way  back in my teens - and historical romance, which influenced Breathless and Something Wicked. My reading habits had turned full circle.

So the books I love to read (even though they're from vastly different genres) have all contributed to the kind of stories I like to write. I adore strong female characters who are either part of a loving family or a close group of friends. One character might be wealthy or a celebrity, because their 'problems' fascinate me. I like beautiful locations, particularly big old houses that have some kind of history or dubious past. And I love twisty-turny plots and mysteries.

If I'd read different books, would I be a different writer? Undoubtedly.

Maybe you should be careful what you read ...

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Thursday 2 July 2015

A Writer's Holiday?

In which I go on holiday, finally learn to relax - and get to refill my 'well of inspiration'

I'm always joking about how I need to get out more. You know what I do all day; I've blogged about it here. If I'm on a deadline, weekends and bank holidays can completely pass me by. I'm not complaining; I love writing and it doesn't feel like work. But sometimes it can be so easy to not leave the house. Too easy. I can use social media to talk to people all over the world, Tesco can deliver my groceries, I get to wear my PJs all day and any research can be done online - so why on earth would I want to go out?

Well, my family had other ideas. They wanted a holiday and last week they dragged me off to Tuscany. They made me leave my laptop at home but I packed my tablet with the idea of keeping up with emails and social media - with any luck, no one would even notice I'd gone. I loaded my Kindle with my work-in-progress. I imagined tapping out blog posts over cappuccinos all around Italy and I packed my biggest notebook for all my new stories.

I was certainly 'getting out more' but I don't think I'd quite grasped the concept of 'on holiday'.

I tried to write on the plane. Seriously, I did. With my MP3 turned up to drown out background noise, just as I do at home. Well, it might work with sheep and tractors but it's not terribly effective at drowning out an Airbus. So I gave up and read a book (not written by me).

I spent the first few days lounging by the pool, reading other books also not written by me, and it didn't feel like skiving at all. I forgot about social media and left my ideas book in my suitcase. I was finally 'on holiday'.

But the writer part of me wasn't entirely neglected. I took hundreds of photos while out sightseeing, I made notes about the beautiful and historic buildings, and collected lots of new stories - snippets of Italian history I can twist into something new.

In Lucca we came across what appeared to be a derelict tower with trees growing out of the top. This was the Guinigi Tower and the trees were ancient holm-oaks, planted deliberately in a little garden at the top. There were 230 steps (I remember each and every one of them) but the reward was a beautiful view of the city. This will definitely be going in a book.

Torre dei Guinigi, Lucca

View of Lucca
from The Torre dei Guinigi

I've always preferred flawed to perfect so I loved the Leaning Tower of Pisa - built on sand with no foundations, hence the 'leaning' bit. It started leaning before they'd got past building the third floor, and still they kept going. (A bit like being a writer; despite all those rejections we never give up!) Here I learned about Count Ugolino, the Mayor of Pisa, accused of treachery in 1288 and imprisoned with his sons and grandsons. The key to their cell was thrown into the River Arno and they were left to starve. A terribly sad story that I'd like to rework with a happier ending!

The Torre Pendente
(The Leaning Tower, Pisa)

The Torre Pendente
(The Leaning Tower, Pisa)

In Florence I admired the Duomo (cathedral) and  the Ponte Vecchio (Old  Bridge), and found shops selling beautiful handmade paper and notebooks - heaven for a writer! I also learned about the Medicis,  a fascinating family who held power in Florence for three hundred years. Larger than life characters just waiting for new stories ... 

Handmade Notebooks
Florence, Italy
I took photos of ancient walls, statues, ruins, rivers, sunflowers, beaches and sunsets, because I've always found inspiration in pictures. But I completely forgot to Instagram my coffee and cake - which was a shame, for some of those cakes were works of art. Nor could I bring myself to photograph those lavishly-decorated glass coffins found in several of the cathedrals, which turned out to contain the mummified remains of saints! 

The Duomo, Pisa
Will I ever write a story set in Tuscany? Maybe. It was a fabulous place to visit. I have written stories with foreign settings before - I had the idea for The Indecent Proposal after visiting Sorrento and The Accidental Proposal was set in New Orleans. I have my notes and my photographs so my 'well of inspiration' is now completely topped up, if not overflowing.

What more could a writer want?

The Duomo, Florence