Jun 27 2015
I am continually astonished at how many people, when they see me sitting somewhere reading a book, assume naturally that the book is one my own novels. And I confess I enjoy the slightly glazed look that often comes into their eyes when I tell them I don’t need to read my own books, because I know how they all end… It sometimes takes a minute for the penny to drop and for the slightly apologetic “Aw, shucks” grin to emerge.
I’ve mentioned this to some of my author friends and they always smile and nod, because the consensus among us is that most people have no conception of what authors actually read. It’s as though there’s a perception out there that an author really can’t read another author’s work, in case he or she might be influenced by that reading and seduced thereby into committing heinous acts of plagiarism.
The truth, though, is that if you don’t read other people’s work constantly, you can’t really hope to be a successful, effective writer. Reading other people’s work is direct research into what’s going on the world of the written word, because in every well-written book, no matter what its subject matter may be, there are nuggets and jewels of someone else’s brilliance, skills and technique that can make you shake your head in admiration and appreciation.
But what does a writer read? The short, three-word answer ought to be “anything and everything”, and by and large that’s the way it works. In my own case, the substance of what I read fluctuates perceptibly depending on the phases of my own particular work-in-progress.
In the early stages of a new novel, most of my reading consists of research, and that can be pretty harrowing, depending upon the period on which I’m working. In the records of fourth-century Roman Britain, for example, there is a wealth of data available on the Army of Occupation and its administration of the Province, but there is almost no surviving information about the ordinary British people or their daily life.
By the 14th Century, all of that has changed and an author has to pay diligent attention to what actually exists in the historical record. I can’t simply have Robert the Bruce in attendance at the Palace of Westminster on a Wednesday in September, 1306, for instance, if there’s an actual record somewhere of his having been in St. Andrews in Scotland within three weeks on either side of that date, because in those days it took at least three weeks of hard riding to cover the distance from St Andrews to London.
Later, though, when I’m actually writing the story, I read only material that is completely unconnected to what I’m working on—anything that’s different and undemanding, that I can read for pleasure while the grist I’ve ingested from my previous reading is sorting itself into usable form in my subconscious. That’s how I met Harry Dresden, my favourite Wizard. Harry is an adult’s version of Harry Potter, and I’ve had more pleasure from his exploits and misadventures than I have from any other contemporary fictional character I can think of.
On a Book Tour about ten years ago, promoting a new novel and faced with multiple flights back and forth across the country, I asked my friend Rob Wiersema, who at that time was not yet living as a full-time author and was managing the bookstore I was appearing in, to recommend something I could read for light entertainment on my travels, and he asked me if I enjoyed Urban Fantasy. I didn’t know what Urban Fantasy was, and said so. He eyed me askance, as writers used to say, then handed me a book called “Storm Front” by Jim Butcher, and I was launched into the world of the Dresden Files.
I think there were three novels in the series at that time, but now there are sixteen, and Butcher is a regular on the New York Times Bestseller Lists, but Harry the character has grown richer and more complex as the novels have expanded in depth and sophistication, and I could ramble on for days about the delight I’ve taken in them.
The books are all set in contemporary Chicago, and Harry’s one of the good guys, a working magician who advertises in the Yellow Pages—though he doesn’t take missing persons cases. His stories are tongue-in-cheek, brilliantly plotted and thoroughly enjoyable, provided that you, the reader, are prepared to hang up your real-world reservations and simply go along for the ride, despite not knowing what Urban Fantasy might be.
I don’t often recommend books wholeheartedly, but I’ve become addicted to these stories, and if you’ve ever enjoyed hard-boiled fiction, police procedurals and shining tales of heroes and derring-do, you might just love them, too. But I must emphasize that you should read them in sequence, starting with Storm Front. Talk to your librarian.