Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Finding Inspiration – Finding Dreams

By Jane K. Cleland

One of the questions I get asked most often is who are my favorite authors. I love that question because it gives me an opportunity to talk about some of my heroes. Lately, I’ve been wondering whether other authors feel as strong a connection to their favorite authors as I do, so I decided to ask several of my favorites, “Which authors inspired you to write, and why?”

Five out of the eight authors I interviewed (myself included) list Carolyn Keene (the pen name used by the various authors of the Nancy Drew stories) as inspiring their own writing. Agatha Christie got two nods. In all, the eight authors listed 22 different names. The authors’ choices, and their reasons for making the choices they did, are, I think, fascinating. Here, in their own words, in reverse alphabetical order, are their answers.

From Sheila York,

The Carolyn Keenes.

As a teenager:
Mary Stewart. I loved her vivid sense of place; I traveled to exotic and exciting places, such as Skye, the Greek isles and the south of France. And of course, she had heroines who got into all kinds of adventures at a time when a teenager longs to break free—safely.

Agatha Christie. How did she keep coming up with those twisty solutions? And Miss Marple and Hercule were so meticulously created and consistently presented.

As an adult:
Raymond Chandler. He made Los Angeles the noir capital. He took a town full of sunshine and made it the darkest place on earth. And there is something overarchingly sad in his much of his work, without his ever appearing to try to make you feel it. It reminds me of that line about acting: “If they can see you acting, you ain’t.” I also admire the economy with which he laid out a character and the way he could pick a single detail to capture place.

Dick Francis. The creation of dozens of believable amateur sleuths. He also taught me how to drop in detail about occupations, teaching the reader something, but not appearing to teach.

Dorothy L. Sayers. The wonderful puzzles. The detail of place and character. And nobody since Dickens has filled so many pages so well.

From Kate White

Nancy Drew. When I read The Secret of Red Gate Farm at the age of 12, I saw for the first time that women could be as gutsy as men and it would pay off for them, and of course, I also fell in love with mysteries then. I also learned how to write cliff hangers at the end of each chapter from re-reading some of the books as an adult. Every chapter seems to end with a line like, “’Nancy, look out,’ Bess shouted as the truck bore down on the duo.”

You just have to turn the page!
From Elaine Viets,

Nancy Drew: The ultimate fantasy for a teenage girl. Nancy has a rich, doting daddy, a boyfriend available only when she needs him, loyal friends, a housekeeper to cook and do the chores and her own car. No visible mom to nag or criticize her. Adults, including the police, listen respectfully to her. (See rich, doting daddy.)

Agatha Christie: Her mysteries featured a woman who was seriously underestimated—alittle old lady who said, “I am Nemesis.” Agatha showed the murder and wickedness lurking in a small English village. I began to see the possibilities for murder and mayhem in the dull St. Louis suburb where I lived.

From Lisa Scottoline,

Grisham and Ludlum. They wrote different kinds of books, but their heroes shared several characteristics: they were always super experts and super competent. They were also always men. As a single mom, I got thinking… what about the super expert and super competent women I know?

From Hank Phillippi Ryan,

From Agatha Christie I learned about plots—that the very ordinary can become the very deadly.

From Arthur Conan Doyle—how to use clues. Foreshadowing. That things are not always what they seem.
You can’t put down a good Herman Wouk.I remember at about age 13, sneaking Marjorie Morningstar from my parent’s bookshelf, thinking I was going to read something racy. What I got was a really compelling story. Talk about drawing the reader in!
From the first, I was enchanted with Shakespeare. And writing mysteries, I often think about all the double meanings he uses, the layering of words and weaving of themes.
Thomas Wolfe and Tom Wolfe—showed me that characters need to have a past and speak like real people.

F. Scott Fitzgerald for writerly elegance.

Edith Wharton for wry humor, and proof that you can sneak in social commentary.
And, all homage to Stephen King’s The Stand. Talk about a page-turner—he manages to pack suspense into every word.

From Chris Grabenstein,

James Patterson—First, hit ‘em with a pie in the face then, while you have their attention, tell ‘em something smart.

Donald E. Westlake—That crime can be fun and funny.

Elmore Leonard—It’s all about characters and what they say to each other.

From Wendy Corsi Staub,

Carolyn Keene—Funny that a woman who doesn’t even exist triggered my love of mysteries with gothic settings. I breathlessly followed Nancy Drew from Blackwood Hall to Moonstone Castle to the Moss-covered Mansion. My dog-eared collection of yellow-spined hard covers traveled from my childhood bedroom to my first New York City apartment when I moved there at 21 to become an author myself.
Mary Higgins Clark—In sixth grade, I graduated to “adult” novels when my neighbor Sue Criscione loaned me A Stranger is Watching. That book marked the beginning of my interest reading page-turning suspense.
Harlan Coben—Because I now plot suspense novels for a living, it’s pretty rare that I don’t see twists coming when I read the work of my fellow authors. Harlan is one of the few who can keep me guessing!

Me, Jane K. Cleland,

Carolyn Keene—I was a Nancy Drew addict from a young age. Her world became an idealized dream. She was smart, kind, loved, and rich.

Robert B. Parker—That an author could create a tough guy who was smart and sexy blew my socks off. Plus I fell in love with Spenser.

Ed McBain/Evan Hunter –In addition to the fact that Hunter was a master storyteller, he had a gift of finding turns of phrase that resonated as I read them, and that stick with me to this day. One of his characters in the 87th Precinct series, Eileen, always toasts to, “Here’s to golden days and purple nights.” I have my protagonist, Josie Prescott, use her dad’s toast, “Here’s to silver light in the dark of night,” as a kind of tribute to Mr. Hunter.

Rex Stout—Nero Wolfe is like a father to me; I ask myself what Mr. Wolfe would think of my doing x, y, or z before I act. His ethos guides me. And of course, I fell in love with Archie.

If I hadn’t happened on a Nero Wolfe novel back when I was in college, I wonder if I’d be a mystery author today. Certainly I wouldn’t be the author I am, aiming to write smart mysteries featuring brave women trying to do the right thing. That ethos derives directly from the wonderful stories written by Carolyn Keene, Robert B. Parker, Ed McBain/Evan Hunter, and of course, by Rex Stout.

Speaking of Rex Stout… I’m actively involved in the Wolfe Pack,, the literary society that celebrates all things Nero Wolfe. Do you know us? Among other things, we’re the folks who give out the Nero Award for the mystery that best honors the tradition of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories each year. (I’m the chair of the committee. Past winners have included Lee Child,, Tess Gerritsen ,; Julia Spenser-Fleming,; and Martha Grimes,, among many others.) In addition, we give out the annual Black Orchid Novella Award in partnership with Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. We’re also the sponsor of what we hope will become an annual tradition—this year marks the 2nd annual Rex Stout banquet to be held on October 15, 2010, at Bouchercon. I’m thrilled to announce that New York Times bestselling author, Gayle Lynds,, will be our keynote speaker. We sing! We toast! We have a rollicking good time, and I cordially invite you to join us!

May I ask… whether you’re an author or a reader or both… who inspires you?


  1. For me, the most pivotal was Mary Papes Dodge for writing Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. This was the first chapter/hard cover book I had ever read. I don't remember how I got the book or where it came from. It might have been my older brothers. I had to googled the book to get the name of the author because I couldn't remember but then read about her. She is a fitting role model for the modern women refusing to give up her maiden name and identity and writing books after being widowed. I can still remember the joy and sense of accomplishment I felt when it ended and I "had done it" and finished my first big book. I've never stopped and the author had been dead for 50 years before I was even born. I hope someone will say that about my books in 50 years.
    Of course I also read the Nancy Drew mysteries and still have some of the first dozen or so with the beloved yellow spine.
    W.S. Gager

  2. Oh, Wendy, I loved Hans Brinker! Thank you so much for reminding me.

    And you know, over the past week, I got to know Mary HIggins Clark just the littlest bit--and wow. She is an amazing role model. Clssy, elegant, generous--and smart smart smart.

    JAne--you were a wonderful moderator of the panel on red herrings at last weekend's MAlice convention!

  3. Thank you, Hank. I thought the red herring panel went well.

    Mary Higgins Clark -- I agree... she's so elegant and gracious... just like you, Hank!

  4. As someone who can't remember NOT reading, I'd say I got hooked on mystery when I read the Speckled Band in high school. I loved seeing all those facts tossed into a story (whether they were true or not). From there, Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov (especially his robot series, which blended mystery and science fiction.)

    Dick Francis's Reflex hooked me on his writing. Didn't much care for Nancy Drew, but read all my brother's Hardy Boys books.

    As a writer, I'm often inspired by those authors whose work amazes me -- simply because it seems so awful, and I wonder how it got published. But then I figure, if that got published, there's still hope for me to move up. (Not mentioning names here!)

  5. Tery! Hi--and yes, the Speckled Band. I still think about that story!

    (And Tnanks. You, too.)

  6. I read the Hardy Boys too but I didn't like them as well as Nancy Drew but they were books my Grandma gave me that were my dad's so they were special, but I've always been partial to strong females. I also love Dick Francis but didn't find him until about 10 years ago. I would love to met Mary Higgins Clark. I've read nearly everything she has read and loved how she weaved mystery with a budding romance.

  7. I also like learning things in my mysteries... in any book... I'm so amazed that you mentioned REFLEX. That book knocked my socks off!

    (Hank, I'm not the least bit elegant in the way you and Mary Higgins Clark are; each of us has different strengths and looks... I'm a "comfort horse," as it were... )

  8. Great topic, Jane. I started with Nancy Drew and havn't stopped since.

    My husband's aunt was in the convent, and loved reading Mary Higgins Clark. I bought copies of Mary's books for her and she loaned them to the other nuns. One evening a ninety-year-old nun failed to come down for dinner. Everyone was sure she had died in bed, until they went upstair and found her reading, one of Mary's novels. I told Mary Higgins Clark this story and she got a big kick out of it. We've talked about Cape Cod many times. She's a classy lady. I really enjoyed her novel, Remember Me, which takes place at the Cape.

  9. Ah, Nancy Drew, by the fire with hot cocoa on a winter's day with no school! Thirty-some years later I was lucky enough to interview the late Mildred Wirt Benson for my children's books column. Mildred was already in her 90s and still at her desk at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Tough lady, flew her own plane, as adventurous as Nancy Drew herself. Mildred wrote the most of the beginning series and created the brave and curious character with her own spirit.
    Today I'm inspired by too many to name, some of them appear on this very blog. But, though the cocoa has been replaced by green tea, and Nancy by Stieg Larrson or Stephen L. Carter or Kate Charles, I'm still by the fire