On Facebook yesterday, in response to a post by Femme Fatale Toni Kelner, I posted a list of the fifteen writers who have influenced me. The challenge (though I was not actually challenged and simply did this for fun) was to list the names without overthinking and without editing. The writers on my list epitomize the kind of story-telling that I aspire to in my own work. Here is that list:
- Mildred Wirt Benson (Nancy Drew books)
- Julie Campbell (creator of Trixie Belden)
- Victoria Holt
- Phyllis A. Whitney
- Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters
- Agatha Christie
- Margery Allingham
- Ngaio Marsh
- Dorothy L. Sayers
- Reginald Hill
- Robert Barnard
- Louisa May Alcott
- Rex Stout
- Margaret Millar
- Dashiell Hammett
I left names out of the fifteen, names that probably should replaces those of other writers in that group. But for most writers, who began their lives as readers, it can be difficult to narrow down a list of one’s major influences.
Thinking about the names that I didn’t include in that first fifteen got me to thinking about the various stages of my reading life. I started out as a toddler, being read to by parents and family. Once I was able to talk clearly (and according to my late mother, I was talking clearly before I learned to walk, imagine that…), I soon memorized some of my favorite Little Golden Books and “read” them by myself.
The summer I turned eight my father took me to the Elizabeth Jones Public Library in Grenada, Mississippi, and I got my first library card. Already interested in history (why/how I cannot recall), I checked out my first book, a child’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. For the next couple of years I read my way through the library’s collection of these biographies, along with some fiction, childhood classics like Little Women, for example. Then I discovered Greek and Roman mythology.
When I was ten or eleven, I discovered Nancy Drew via The Secret of Shadow Ranch (the revised version). That hooked me on mysteries, and I devoured every Nancy Drew book I could find. I ended up reading many, many juvenile series, like Trixie Belden, the Hardy Boys, the Dana Girls, Judy Bolton, the Three Investigators, and so on.
As a teenager I stumbled into romantic suspense via The Shivering Sands by Victoria Holt. The combination of mystery, romance, and history intrigued me. Fortunately for me the public library in Grenada had plenty of these books, by Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney, Mary Stewart, Velda Johnston, Jane Aiken Hodge, and many others. Around this time, Kathleen Woodiwiss published her first book, The Flame and the Flower, and set the historical romance market on fire. I devoured a lot of historical romances in my teens, everything from Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers to the sublime Georgette Heyer. I also read the classics, either on my own or as a requirement of schoolwork – Jane Austen, George Eliot, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, etc., etc.
In graduate school, relocated to Houston, I found the mystery bookstore Murder by the Book. I got started on Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and other English mystery writers. I found more and more writers, both English and American, thanks to the store.
Whenever I’m asked for writing advice, I respond first with “read.” Reading is fundamental to writing. Read good books, read bad books. Learn to tell the difference between them. Analyze what makes a good book a good book, and a bad one a bad one. In your opinion, of course. Reading, like writing, is a personal journey. We are shaped by what we read as much as by what we write, based on the influences of the story-tellers who came before us.