Jane Austen, Mary Stewart and Martha Grimes
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked on school visits is what a person can do to become a writer. The easy answer is to read as much as possible, and to write, write, write. But that’s not all of it. When I first started writing, I had been a voracious reader for a long time, in fact, ever since I learned to read. I also wrote stories as a child, and as an adult, struggled to write full length novels. It wasn’t until I started studying the books I loved, that I took that big step to becoming a real storyteller. I will never stop working on my storytelling technique, because there is always more to learn, but I wanted to talk about those books that first made me understand the nature of pulling in a reader.
Mary Stewart Merlin trilogy is a set of books I reread at least once a year. The first book in the series, THE CRYSTAL CAVE, is the one I read to remind myself of Ms. Stewart’s writing techniques. She is terrific at world-building, and at bringing the reader in with all the senses. Here are a few sentences from the opening chapter:
“My mother was sitting at her loom; I remember the cloth; it was of scarlet, with a narrow pattern of green at the edge. I sat near her on the floor, playing knuckle-bones, right hand against left. The sun slanted through the windows, making oblong pools of bright gold on the cracked mosaics of the floor; bees droned in the herbs outside, and even the click and rattle of the loom sounded sleepy.”
I’ve always loved those lines because I can picture that scene so clearly in my head, it feels like I could be sitting there as well.
When I’m revising my own stories, I go back chapter by chapter and ask myself how I’ve engaged the reader’s senses. In every chapter there is a way to bring in not only sight, but at least one example of sound, scent, taste, or touch.
An author who helped me understand character development is Martha Grimes, a mystery writer who has been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. I’ve read all her Richard Jury mysteries, and when I was first struggling with writing, I asked myself an important question: Why exactly do I love Ms. Jury’s books over all the other hundreds of mysteries I’d read?
She’s a master at creating characters so vivid, I want to meet them. Well, at least some of them. The Aunt Agatha in the series is the relative we all hope we never have. Her main characters, Melrose Plant and Richard Jury are both complex, interesting and unique. In the first three chapters of THE MAN WITH A LOAD OF MISCHIEF, the reader learns all about the personality, background, and character of Melrose Plant in a seamless manner woven into the plot. The next chapters switch to Richard Jury and do the same thing. I love the way she describes the secondary characters as well. Here’s her description of a local constable, Constable Pluck:
“Pluck was thin to the point of emaciation, but he had a cherubic, rosy face, made even rosier by winter’s bite, so that he looked like an apple on a stick. But he was a good man, if a bit of a gossip.”
Martha Grimes also uses subtle touches of humor, which I’ve discovered is one of the keys to what makes me love a book. For example, in later books, the constant battle between Scotland Yard Superintendent Racer and the cat that has the run of the place is a nice touch. It highlights the personality of the obnoxious Racer, and it’s fun to read as well.
Jane Austen in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE uses light touches of humor to great effect too, but for me, one of her main strengths is her ability to use dialog to both move the plot along and to establish character. I’ve always loved Mr. Bennet’s lines in the opening chapter when he’s speaking to Mrs. Bennet: “I have a high respect for you nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.” These few lines tell a reader so much about both characters and their relationship with each other.
There is a great deal of dialogue in the book and very little description of things like appearance, clothing and surroundings. I think the important lesson to take from this is that while scene setting is vital, it can also be very spare, depending on the book. Austen was writing for an audience who didn’t need much description to imagine the setting, because it was their immediate world. This is something to think about when writing a contemporary. Unless there is something unusual about the setting, great blocks of description may well slow the book down too much.
I do also have certain books that influence me for a specific writing project. DUNE was an enormous influence on the first of the science fiction trilogy I’m working on, but that influence is enough for a whole post of its own!
So my advice to writers pared down to one sentence is “Find a book you absolutely love, and figure out exactly why you love it.”