How Has Your Reading Changed…or Not?

Thirty years ago (yes, really!), I was reading 700-page novels. In high school, I fell in love with Russian novels (yes, again, really!), and then in college discovered the British Victorian writers and fell, if possible, even more deeply in love (yes, oh, whatever…). It was an extension of what I’d felt when I found fantasy writers like Tolkien and his followers–the experience of being a fast reader who could finally stay with one particular story & set of characters for more than a day or two. Those fantasy series, and these novels…kept going. And, oh, the characters.

When I went on to grad school, I knew what I was going to be reading. More Victorians. I ended up doing my orals on the Bront ës, and my thesis on Wuthering Heights. (And don’t you think, BY NOW, that a spellchecker should NOT try to change “Wuthering” to “Withering?!”) I read and read and read and…

…I burnt out.

Grad school was where I discovered that academia was not the right place for me. That while reading was as necessary as breathing to me, and that–yes–I could talk about a book for hours–all this analysis, this taking apart the author’s meaning and intent, was starting to wear thin. And those long books suddenly felt…really long.

So I switched gears. The last semester I wrote my thesis and took one course: Modern British Drama. 20-50 pages/book, with about 10 lines of text on a page. And lots of laughs.

And for reading pleasure, I picked up Barbara Pym’s novels and…mysteries. (Yes, back to books I could finish in a day-and-a-half.) I discovered Ruth Rendell and rediscovered Agatha Christie. Again…not such long books. Some might say Agatha Christie doesn’t do character–I’d disagree. But I think, in Rendell’s novels and the rest of the mysteries I read in the next few years, there was a connection between the characters in the Victorian novels I’d been reading and these new series. The characters stayed around. And, even while they were busy solving crimes, they also (especially the more modern detectives) had their own life problems–problems that also went on and on, over multiple books, not unlike the never-ending problems that carried Victorian characters over 700 pages.

I still read mysteries. They satisfy something in me that I haven’t yet identified, but probably don’t need to examine too closely–they obviously satisfy that something in a huge number of other readers, or they wouldn’t be so popular. If I’m hanging around too long in just children’s or teen books, or in just fantasy, I find myself needing a fix of someone strong and aggressive, who’s out to solve someone else’s problems, even if they can’t really work on their own in a big way yet.

And then there is the kids/teen lit. This probably makes up anywhere between 80 & 90% of my reading today. Why? Well, yes, obviously because I write it. But more than that, because there is just so much on the market that is brilliant. Honestly, if you want to go as far as possible from the dense layers of Victorian novels as you can–pick up a 200-page realistic YA novel. You’d run out of red ink if you tried to edit one of those books from the 1800s into a story for teens today. (Well, honestly, except for maybe Wuthering Heights, but I may be biased.)

But again…the characters. I think this is the core of my reading over the years. The people who all these writers have drawn onto their pages, for me to immerse myself in. You’d think I would read mysteries for the plot, but I can pick up an Agatha-Christie novel for the third time and still not figure out whodunnit. Because it’s the people she wrote about and all their quirks and attitudes and perfect dialogue that hook me in and keep me reading. It was Cathy & Heathcliff and Catherine and Hareton that made me love Wuthering Heights. It’s the scene at the end of The Hobbit, where Bilbo and Thorin meet for the last time, that brings me back for a zillionth reread and has me in tears yet again. It’s the pain of Lia in Wintergirls that wrenches at me, that makes me need to put down the book for a break and calls to me until I pick it up again.

Character. So, yes, if you look at the books on my shelves today and compare them to the ones that were there thirty years ago, they don’t look so much the same. In fact, you could probably fit three of the books today into the space of one from the past. But it seems, after all, there is a connection, a continuity, in my reading over all these decades. Obviously, it’s the quality of the writing. Most importantly, though, I think it’s the people who that wonderful writing–those writers–created.

What about you? What are you reading today that you weren’t reading years ago? Is it a total switch for you, or do you see a common thread? Drop your thoughts into the comments and share.

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World-Building: Fantasy OR Reality

I used to read SO much fantasy. From the day I discovered Tolkien, I was on the hunt for more elves and wizards, and McCaffrey introduced me to dragons (and fire lizards), and I never wanted to stop. It was, I admit, a habit–the kind that isn’t all that discriminating, but just needs to be fed.

I can’t remember when this pattern decreased. Maybe when I found mysteries? Or when I started reading new middle-grade and YA books about “real” kids? Not sure. I’ve always been ready to dip back in, as books come along–like with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and Sharon Shinn’s beautiful YA books. But somewhere/somewhen, the sheer quantity of my fantasy reading dropped.

It may be picking up again. I just read Tamora Pierce’s Melting Stones and I think I’m falling in love again. The characters are wonderful and her prose is just gorgeous. What I really think has hooked me, though, is the world that Pierce has built.

I’ve actually been thinking about world-building lately, because I don’t think it’s justsomething for fantasy and sci-fi writers. In my historical novel, I do have to create the world of 1913 Chicago that my MC lives in. Yes, I have to base this world on true facts, but I need to find the right balance with which to weave those facts into her story. I also need to make sure that I get the right balance between historical details and the specific, particulate of that world in which Caro lives.

So I’ve started thinking about how to do this, and I’m trying to pay attention to the writers who are doing it well. Like Pierce. I’m looking for the way this world-building shows up in, but doesn’t take over, the story. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • The details/information that are important to the story world are introduced fairly early on. This establishes for the reader where/when we are and that this story is not taking place “here,” or”now” wherever the reader’s here and now might be.
  • Those details are concrete and specific. They are SO shown, not told.
  • The details are woven, not dropped in. They show up in dialog, in action, not simply in internal thoughts or narration. And they are scattered across the scenes and pages, never clumped.
  • The details feel at once alien and natural. In other words, they are called out for the reader so that we see and know them as different from our world. On the flip side, they are taken as almost matter-of-fact by the characters–recognized as, not dull, but every-day or at least familiar.
    To put that badly, but perhaps more clearly, a character does not come into the room, note the pottery bowl and wooden spoon on the table, and say, “Wow! Look at that!”  Instead, they say something like, “Hey, clear your eatingware off the mat, will you?!”
  • In the same vein, special powers or abilities–just like unique personality traits–are not called out, highlighted, for the reader’s attention. It’s the changes in these powers/abilities that seem new and important to the characters, and that’s how they need to feel to the reader.

What about you? Do you world-build as you write? What are your techniques for finding the details, and what are your craft goals for making those details part of your story? I’d love to hear your takes on this! AND any fantasy-author recommendations, as well!