The things writers read- A Blast From The Past From December 2008


The things writers read- A Blast From The Past From December 2008

Apropos nothing I’ve been wondering if I’m typical of how writers’ read. I don’t mean in fiction.
In fiction – with the strange exception of people I’ve been hearing about lately, who do not read at all because they’re afraid it will taint their writing (most of these people aren’t published, I should add) – the short answer to a writer’s reading tastes is like the one about the eight hundred pound gorilla. The short answer is “Anything he/she wants to.” The even shorter answer is “Everything.”

For years I held fast to one certainty. I didn’t read Romance. And then it started trickling in. It started with Dave Freer – curse you my friend ! – telling me I had to read Heyer. He was right, I did. Venetia quickly became one of my favorite books, an obsession I promptly passed onto the boys. And then friends recommended other writers. And then at RWA I found my reaction to Romance is about the same as to other genres. It leaves no mark. Meaning that I can read most of it painlessly. About ten percent will strike me one way or another. Ten percent will make me run out and buy everything the writer ever wrote. Ten percent makes me throw it against the wall and at least metaphorically stomp on it. Which makes Romance just the same as Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and Thrillers.

Two things I don’t read, and they’re highly personal distastes – one of them is gross out horror. It’s not that I’m a sensitive plant. A friend is forever protecting me from gross/shocking sights because the fact that I don’t like paint-the-room-red scenes fits in with his idea of being a lady. I’m a lady and therefore I should flinch from this sort of thing. Actually the truth is that it bores me. In the dank mess that is my mind I can come up with much worse than anything I’ve ever read. Without trying. Depending on how stable I’m feeling, sometimes the difficult part is not to write this stuff.

The other thing I don’t read, for a different reason, is porn. No, look, I’m not going to claim to be much purer or high minded than other people. I assume some of you have read my stuff – coff. It’s just that what goes where and how many times has never held any kind of fascination unless it is at that precise moment happening to me (and then I don’t particularly want to share it). I’m not excluding erotica. In fact I’m learning to include erotic passages in my writing. (Which is funny, considering I sold my first erotica piece ten years ago, but it was very much a one-off.) But in erotica what’s important is the emotions that dictate the acts and are shaped by them. That’s different from in and out and “oh,” and “ah.” Fictional characters need to have emotions to be real.

But everything else that falls to hand, from fairy tales to my kids’ Disney comics, gets read. Depending on the time of day and what I feel like, I can find myself reading very odd things.

On the other hand, my non fiction forms a much more interesting pattern and one that I’m not sure other writers follow at all. I know that many of my friends – Dave Freer, for instance – read a lot of non fiction as well. But I also know that a lot of them read almost exclusively fiction. I read at least as much non-fiction as fiction. Possibly more, depending on what is going on in my life. (Non-fiction demands less emotional involvement than fiction, so when I’m tired or depressed, I read mostly non-fiction.)

One of the first books I read was a scholarly history of Portugal and since then I have continued to read a lot history, but also other things – things I love include old biology books. Old science books, of any kind, including nineteenth century educational texts. Travel logs. Books on economics, physics… well, just about anything.

I buy non fiction the way other people buy food when they go to the grocery store hungry. “Oooh, that looks good.” Hitting Amazon with time on my hands, means a jumble of books gets bought. Ditto hitting a bookstore. Or for that matter the dumpster outside a bookstore.
Generally speaking there is a pattern to it, though, and it can be exemplified by the stuff that dropped into the house today via the mail. First, there was Black Swan, a book on well… our perception of quantum reality and rare history-altering events that were thought to be impossible before. So far I have no reason why I’m reading this. Just… it’s interesting and it’s there. I keep it downstairs in the kitchen and read it while having meals, or tea, or cooking (or huddling by the oven because it’s been so cold). That sort of thing.

The other one is Gentleman Boss, a biography of President Chester Arthur. This one is being read with the vague idea of a series of historical murder mysteries. I’ve discussed the first of this with my agent, with the idea that it was a one-off, and possibly main stream. For all it know it’s still main stream, but I have a vague suspicion it’s not one-off. I’m reading this book with the idea of pinning that feeling down and seeing if there is a “there” there. To put it in perspective, the idea for the first of these mysteries came to me almost a year ago, and the suspicion there might be more did not hit until last month. That one is by my bedside table, and I read a few pages before sleeping.

Then there is – still un-started, (because if I start it, it will make me go back to that project and away form the one in which I’m working just now) and I don’t remember the title, is about the status of women in baroque France. That one is for a very specific half-way through project.
And then there’s just general “ooh” reading. When I had the idea for my Heart of Light Series, I didn’t even know where my memory of African History came from.

It wasn’t until we were moving that I found, stuffed in a closet, all the books I’d already decided I needed to buy to carry the project through. Finding them, I remembered I’d read them ten years before and that was why I just needed to refresh my knowledge. I’d read them in a fit of “Ooh, that looks tasty.” In the same vein, lately I’ve been doing a lot of cryptozoology reading. No idea where it fits in, yet.

Do other writers read like me? I don’t know. I know that the older I get the more I want to read – and listen. And watch. The Great Courses series is ruining me – and the more conscious I am of how little I know. Even with all my reading, the idea that I can create a plausible world – scientific or magic – is a staggering piece of hubris. I look at my book-stuffed house and I think “I want to know more.”


59 thoughts on “The things writers read- A Blast From The Past From December 2008

  1. with the strange exception of people I’ve been hearing about lately, who do not read at all because they’re afraid it will taint their writing (most of these people aren’t published, I should add)

    I suspect those types wouldn’t do well in Indie. 😈

  2. In the dank mess that is my mind I can come up with much worse than anything I’ve ever read. Without trying.

    There is sound reason that any remotely sane demon runs away from humans as fast as demonically possibly. Humans are cursed with the ability to imagine things Even Worse. This is why they do not call their world Hell. The really bad, truly terrifying humans make the ‘worse’ actually happen.

    1. There is a reason I have some friends that love current ‘Horror’ films that won’t watch anything from Hitchcock. Todays films give them a nice jump, Hitchcock’s films frighten them. Hitchcock knew to leave as much to the imagination of the view as possible, and to subtly guide the viewer towards the desired image.
      Would Jaws be remembered today if ‘Bruce’ hadn’t broken down so often, requiring reaction shots instead of special effects?

      1. I remember when the movie “Relic” was in preview for release.

        Hubby: “That looks chilling …”.
        Me: “No. No way. Not watching it.”
        Hubby: “Why?”
        Me: “Because the book scared &*^$ me.”

        Got started on the book and could not go to bed until I finished the thing. Sure, before the end of the book I knew what had happened, if not the specifics of how, and knew how it had to end, if not the specifics until it was read.

        Never have seen it. Don’t plan on it, ever.

    2. The Marine Corps version of the 23rd Psalm: “Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow, I will fear no evil. For I am the baddest evil in the Valley”. Yup, we humans can (and all too often do) make worse actually happen.

          1. There is at least one case where a man attacked by two leopards beat one of them to death with the other.

            1. “Bwana” Cottar, if I remember my Capstick correctly. Came across the two leopards fighting, they decided to take their differences out on him, and he caught both by the throat and strangled them.

    3. You’ve reminded me of an episode of Angel (the Joss Whedon series). A demon possesses a little boy and our heroes exorcise it, then go hunt it down to finish it off. When they catch up to it they gloat that the demon didn’t get the boy’s soul and are taken aback when it asks “What soul?”

      Turns out the boy was an utterly remorseless psychopath and was in control from the moment the demon made the mistake of possessing him. It was relieved to be kicked out of the kid’s body and was so broken by the experience that it gladly stood there and LET the heroes kill it.

      1. The soul is the animating principle of the human body and therefore the boy had a soul.

        At that, a psychopath probably does not have sufficient use of reason to commit actual sin.

            1. And we think it’s hard enough to tell the difference between the boys and the girls nowadays.

  3. The other thing I don’t read, for a different reason, is porn.

    In Florence King’s When Sisterhood Was in Flower, the main character spends some time as a writer for a porno publishing house. The publisher’s guidelines were a hoot! Apparently, you weren’t supposed to give any of your male characters names that would confuse the reader (so much for Peter, John Thomas, etc.).

    Eventually, the main character, along with the rest of publishing house staff, grow sick and disgusted with themselves and quit. It turns out that the publishing house is Mafia controlled, but the outfit in charge of the operation is so used to staff turnover that they release everyone with best wishes and homemade cookies!

    1. If you poke around the web you can find stories about writing porn paperbacks that make Ms. King’s tale sound wonderfully plausible. During my teens I availed myself of a lot of the porn paperbacks of the day. They were easier to get than porn mags, for an underage person, and I am generally more print oriented. Also, they had to engage the reader, which most porn video doesn’t beyond a certain gut level. Among other things, most porn ‘stars’ can’t act.

      So, I gathered a fascinating range of misinformation about sex,mamd my fantasy life is deranged.


      Cuddling is still better, in the long run.

      1. If you can find it (might be in the archives of his Yahoo! mailing list) Mike Resnick also served his time in the porn mines and has hilarious stories from it. My favorite was how he started subcontracting manuscripts to his fellow starving authors for a significant percentage.

  4. Paradox #1
    I need to learn what I don’t know.

    The problem:
    I will never know what I don’t know.
    So how to learn what I don’t know, I don’t know.
    To learn, you must first learn you don’t know.
    Second, learn what you know that is false.
    Third, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know
    Last, remember the map is not the territory.

    Ask yourself. What don’t I know?
    To get in trouble at school, ask your teacher:
    “What don’t I know, that you will try to teach me?”
    So a main rule for life is impossible, yet possible.

    My goal, a yard of books (36″) a month. Only about 300 pages a day. They keep writing faster than I read.

    1. This is why I recommend intensive reading of primary source for all aspiring writers. It’s not to learn things. It’s to knock your block off so that you realize that you have to check whether something really was the way you are familiar with, back in the day — or was the way you intuitively imagine on the assumption that “not like the way we do it” is enough.

      I’ve known writers who produced howlers either way.

      1. Example: women having full legal citizenship rights and duties in the Hansa cities. That caught me by surprise. I’d assumed they would be “deputy spouses” or wards of minors (with all the limitations that entailed) like in Nuremberg. Wrong! A widow of proven business ability could become a citizen, had militia duties, served on business juries, signed contracts, sued and was sued… All in her own right and name, although on the understanding that her eldest son would inherit the business when he came of age. This in the 1100s-1400s.

    2. “They keep writing faster than I read.”
      So many books, so little time.
      At a book a week for the rest of my life, I will not be able to read everything I have on my shelves, and I keep bringing in more.
      Non-fiction is my Sominex substitute.
      Thirty pages of history, or 3 of physics, as the mood takes me.

        1. This iz why I seek immortality. I need to complete my quest of finishing my TBR stacks and shelves. When my body passes its mortal coil, the stacks will stop growing, but my spirit will linger until the quest is complete.

          This sounds like a plan to become the first non-evil lich in history.

          1. I figure when I get to heaven my “room” will contain an infinite library, (real bookcases, God prefers paper). Also, there will be the books written by those who did not finish a series on earth, due to evil publishers. I am promised a room.

            My son died before seeing the end of GOT. I suspect up in heaven he is watching HBO.

            My first request when I arrive: The movie of the movement of the continents speeded up a million times. Takes only 4,500 years to complete, (including the collision with Thera, and the formation of the moon). I can also read while I watch the very big screen. Forever is a very long time. I might get caught up with my reading.

            Your heaven may vary. God will give you what you need.

  5. I’m on a paleo-mammal binge at the moment. No idea why, other than 1. they are totally a-political and 2. they are seriously strange and cool.

  6. And I second the Great Courses. The one on cathedrals is fantastic. I’ve got a few other history sets saved up for this summer, when I actually have time to watch without stressing out about “Oh, I need to incorporate this in the curriculum, but where do I find time?”

  7. One of my favorite habits is just to browse the New Books section of the local library. You never know what might show up. Seashore identification guides. How to draw manga. A book on the homebrewed beers of Florida!

    1. Nope. Werewolves. Not necessarily humans who turn into wolves, but huge wolves which can run on two feet like humans and have humanlike hands, and are smart, smart enough to mostly hide from humans.

      Except when they find one of you alone somewhere in the forest where they could just make you disappear, without a trace because they hid the traces. 🙂

  8. Pete Grant asked on his blog today “What to do about Africa”?

    He has no solution he finds acceptable.

    My mind immediately leapt to the relative success of the way American indians were handled. (Which isn’t to say that those policies were objectively good or desirable, only to say that in reality, despite claims by the left, solutions that were better practically or morally have not been shown to have been feasible.) Normally, I would be using this to argue for a blood and guts policy of some sort, but that bores me at the moment.

    The interesting point follows. It has been argued that West African countries show lower IQ, that this may be due to heritable biological differences, and that if so, there could possibly be inherent issues with regard to a high level of civilization. What do we know about what those same measures would have said about the indian tribes? What about the indians now? Is it possible that we are looking at some factor that is not necessarily stable over hundreds of years?

    My guess is that some of this is stuff we can’t know to better than gut check certainty.

    1. I suppose it has been shown. But then again:

      In addition, some people have argued that Lynn deliberately ignored samples or studies that found higher IQs in sub-Saharan Africa, and only used data that provided especially low IQs. For example, in one study from Nigeria that involved seven samples, Lynn only used results from the two lowest scoring samples. Lynn did not provide an explanation about why the 5 highest scoring samples were ignored.

    2. Population percentage is a BIG difference. There were far, far fewer American Indians when the big population push among the colonists came then there are/were native Africans. Native diseases is another huge difference. Europeans brought disease to the New World. Africa sends diseases elsewhere (so does Central Asia.)

      You’re also dealing with different kinds of intelligence. That’s the point Jared Diamond almost made at the end of _Guns, Germs, and Steel_, then backed away very quickly.

      1. Population percentage is something somewhat susceptible to human intervention. We see the left trying to push things one way in the first world.

        I’m finding myself doing a mental sketch of something inspired by the boarding schools which destroyed the plains indians warrior societies. Thinking, “maybe this would be more logistically feasible in these days”. I’ve a feeling it is quite mad, and that I could prove that it wouldn’t work.

      2. Ehhhhhh…maybe. Most of the arguments I see cropping up RE: the “lower/different intelligence” of sub-Saharan Africans seem like the Romans could have applied them to the Germans in Tacitus’ day–and, from what I recall, frequently did.

        1. Yes, but modern Germans are clearly not intelligent enough to have true civilization on the order of America’s. They have gun control, and are not contesting green policies.

          Clearly below normal. 🙂

          1. They’re not so much unintelligent as they are hidebound.

            Which isn’t surprising, considering that they sent all of their liberty-minded people over here, starting in 1848 and continuing into the early 1900s.

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