Thursday, April 11, 2013


DEBORAH CROMBIE: A new novel by Erin Hart is about as big
a treat as Christmas as far as I'm concerned. Set in Ireland, her books feature archeologists Nora Gavin and Cormac Macguire as they delve into mysteries as well as the past.

I'm not alone in my enthusiasm: According to a starred review in Publisher's Weekly, THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN, the fourth novel in the series, "Combines powerful insights into human nature and pristine prose...offers food for thought that persists beyond the immediate thrill of a well-told tale."  (Gorgeous cover, by the way.)

Not only does Erin Hart give readers eloquent language and deftly plotted mysteries, she creates characters that stay with us, and today she's going to share some very interesting theories about just why that is.

ERIN HART: I got a lovely, heartwarming message recently from a reader who was already missing Nora Gavin and Cormac Maguire when she finished reading THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN. That’s got to be one of the most satisfying moments for a writer, to hear that the people and places that have sprung from your imagination feel so real to other people as well.

I’ve long joked that some of my best friends are fictional characters. I was about eight when I wept for days over the death of poor Beth March after my mother read aloud from LITTLE WOMEN. I fell in love with the flawed and tragic Sydney Carton as I read A TALE OF TWO CITIES at age thirteen. Caught up in WAR AND PEACE at the cabin one summer, I remember telling my mother that I simply hadn’t the strength to wash dishes after supper—because I’d just lived through the Battle of Austerlitz. (Didn’t get away with that drama-queen excuse, as I recall, but heck—it was worth a try!)

Literature has always felt a bit more real to me than real life, and I don’t think I’m alone. I’m sure we all have certain characters who still linger in our consciousness, some for years after we’ve finished reading about them in a novel. The rational part of us knows that they’re made up, and yet…

Then, about a year ago, I read a wonderful article by Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times. “Your Brain on Fiction” was about how sensory language stimulates the same areas of the brain as actual sensory or motor experiences. You can read the whole piece here.

Here are a few little excerpts from the piece that really stood out to me, as a writer and teacher of writing:

In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark. The way the brain handles metaphors has also received extensive study; some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not…

… the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. What’s more, this activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement described was arm-related and in another part when the movement concerned the leg.

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.

Is this not just wildly fascinating? And at the same time, it’s only confirmation of what readers and storytellers have always known. Still, it’s stunning to have this concrete scientific evidence that words contain stronger magic than we realize. In our heads, we actually LIVE the stories our eyes take in from the printed page. In a way, reading fiction is a bit like dreaming, a state in which we sort through reality and possibility, where we can sift and sort and re-order and imagine, and try to make sense of things.

To me, one of the main points of reading fiction is to get inside the heads of others, to live vicariously through a diversity of characters. It’s amazing how easily we fall under the spell of a story, and feel a thread of connection to the characters, putting ourselves in their place, asking what we might do in the same situation. And it turns out that reading fiction actually does expand one’s sense of empathy and experience.

In her article, Annie Murphy Paul also cites some studies in which social skills are affected by what they read, which, again, is not at all surprising:

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.

It is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels. A 2010 study by Dr. Mar found a similar result in preschool-age children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind — an effect that was also produced by watching movies but, curiously, not by watching television.

Since reading this piece, I’ve been asking people about the books and the characters that have stuck with them for years. So, how about it, readers? Tell us about some of the characters who have never left you, fictional creations who are so real that you still wonder about what they’re up to from time to time…

DEBS: Fascinating stuff! And I love that science is confirming what we readers have always known...

 Erin will be dropping in to answer questions and respond to comments, and she'll be giving away a copy of THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN to a very lucky commenter. You can learn more about Erin and her books at, on Facebook, on Twitter, and at her blog.


  1. When I think of characters who seem “real” to me, my first thoughts are generally of characters who live in their own series of books: Clare and Russ . . . Eve Dallas . . . Jack Reacher. Perhaps that’s because many of the books I read are written as part of an on-going series.

    But what makes these characters . . . and so many others . . . “real” for me, what draws me back to their stories again and again, is the wonderfully rich tapestry that their authors have woven for them. I think it’s always been all about the words . . . .

  2. Wow, that was really interesting. I have always felt this as well, but never knew that there was science behind it to back it up.

    What I found even more intriguing was that the effects were evident in reading and movie-watching, but not television. I wonder if it has something to do with long-term submersion in the media. (With TV, you are constantly interrupted by commercials). Fascinating stuff!

    The next time my friends laugh when I refer to a book character as if they really existed, I will pull out this study.

    Thanks for sharing it with us Erin.

  3. Hi Erin,

    Mysteries are my favorite reading material. I love reading about relationships, so a mystery with a sense of community and relationships will get my attention. How these develop over time interest me especially, so I am fond of series.

    It's interesting that this has come up here today in Debs' blog with you, because I was just thinking about my compulsion to go back to the beginning of her Gemma and Duncan series to reread them in order. I love the books. The characters and communities they live in have become important to me. Yet I found that something was amiss for me. A few days ago I realized what it was.

    Because I must rely on the library to send me recorded books by mail for most of my reading, I take what I can get when they are able to send it to me. That means I might request books by Deborah Crombie. They won't come in order of publication. They'll come when they are available and when it's my turn.

    What I realized I was missing was the developing relationship of Gemma and Duncan, something that might mean very little to someone else, but it helps me have a better relationship with them and their changing settings, their communities that coalesce over time. A few weeks ago, I went back to the beginning of Debs' Gemma and Duncan books and started downloading them one at a time to read in order and have a better sense of them in relationship.

    I studied neuroscience in school, just because I enjoy it. Medicine and its science has been a lifelong hobby of mine. I became fascinated with the different types of scans and what they reveal. PET scans are my favorite. I love the colors. Do you know there is a big competitive spirit in the neuro community that centers on making attractive and colorful graphics of brain imaging? By the time I got my degrees and certification in divinity and family therapy, I was as interested in the relationships of the neuroscientists with one another and their creative competition as I was with the neuroscience.

    I enjoy being in relationship and my reading tastes reflect that. I am looking forward to reading your books, and I am so glad you were here today with Debs for me to learn a little bit about you and them.

  4. Characters from books that are "real": the first that popped into my head was Trixie Belden. I loved this series from the time I started reading them at around age 8. I collected all the books, then as a teenager felt I was too old for them and donated them to the local start-up library. A decade later I missed them, and started buying them again on eBay (they are out of print). I now have a couple hundred books, which is funny because there are only 39 in the series. Every once in a while I'll pull one out and read it.

    As others have said, it is usually the series that stick with me. Clare and Russ - oh yes. And Reine, your comment about Gemma and Duncan made a little lightbulb go off for me. I, too, hopped into the series in the middle and have been feeling a niggle that something is missing. Of course, I need to go back to the beginning and do it right!

  5. Reading the bit about how our brain works on fiction makes me curious about why some of us get similarly engaged (one might say"addicted") to the intricacies of social networking. Though not crafted and creative as a good mystery series like Erin's and Deb's, Facebook has its own sets of themes, characters, plots, nuances and settings. I sure that I am not alone in grabbing my iPad and sitting down with a cuppa just to "catch up" on what might be happening in the myriad sagas unfolding there. Not anyway as exciting as opening the newest Erin Hart or Deborah Crombie by a long shot, however!

  6. I find that the well-developed characters live on in my mind quite independently and comfortably, very much like the "photographs" in the Harry Potter series, which are not static but actually little "time captures" (referencing a book to explain memories of a book -- how's that for metacontent? ☺ )

    The ones that I find myself wondering about the most are the characters from series that were "abandoned" without what I would characterize as real character resolution... Marne Davis Kellogg's Lilly Bennett series, or D.R. Meredith's John Lloyd Branson series are the ones that first come to mind for me.

    Of course, one could go all Colin Dexter, although you apparently would have to kill ALL the characters to stop them from developing further. Us readers and our imaginations...

    So if "individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels," then what about WRITERS of such fiction? That's what I want to know!

  7. Case in point. I was about to comment here how even I, most times quite the peaceful, owlish librarian, was so enraged at the devastating ending to a major character in UK mystery writer Ann Cleeve's Blue Lightening (#4 Shetland series) that I hurled the book across the room screaming "Nevermore!" While my cats went squalling and sprinting away.
    But. Never say "Nevermore" when one's brain is connected to the characters in a good series. In checking Amazon for Ann's name spelling before I posted this very comment, I was utterly sidelined, inspired and sheepish to discover..Shetland .#5 is lurking awaiting my Kindle download.

  8. Di -

    I totally felt the same way at the end of Blue Lightening. Fortunately, I had already spoken to Ann who assure me that there would be more Shetland books, though different in some ways. Can't wait!

  9. What an interesting thought, Prairillon. Are writers more empathetic? There have been many famous writers who were apparently NOT. However, I've found most of the writers I've known over the years to be exceptionally nice people. As for me, since I was a child I've been very aware of other people's moods and emotional reactions. This may be of benefit to the writer, but can be a bit of a handicap on the personal front. I've often thought it would be much easier to go through life blithely unaware.

  10. And thanks for the nice comments about Duncan and Gemma, Reine and Sandy and Di. They seem very real to me. Before I start every new book, I say I'm going to go back to the beginning and read the entire series straight through, and then I never have time. I'm going to up the resolution meter...

  11. Erin's given us great food for thought (that image always reminds me of a restaurant in Missoula, near the Univ of MT campus, called Food for Thought with a drawing of a brain for a logo). But she didn't say much about HER book. So here's the review I wrote for Book Page: (Hint: those characters live on in my brain!)

  12. Oh thank you for another series to dive into! This was interesting information. And I'm really looking forward to reading your books, Erin.

    When I was young I adored Cherry Ames. I always wanted to be a nurse just like her - and my mother. I read every book. One year of nursing school changed my mind. But Cherry was very real for me.

    It seems to me that characters in book are real people. After finishing a book I feel that good friends have left. I miss them. Gemma and Duncan, Russ and Clare, Georgie and Darcy (we need MORE Darcy), Louise Penny's Gamache. I've recently finished the entire series of Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER and Jamie and Claire are real, aren't they? Same thing with Matthew and Diana in Deborah Harkness' series. And now I see that there's a scientific reason for feeling this way. (In addition to wonderful writing.)

    I do tend to get lost in books and that's why I'm so thankful for the creativity of authors. You are my heroes!

  13. Thanks, Leslie! I've posted the link for the review on my Facebook page as well!

  14. This reminded me that it had been too many years since I read Erin Hart, so I went to Audible and have bought Lake of Sorrows. It's downloading right now. False Mermaid is now in my Audible wish list.

  15. Hello everyone! Chiming in late here; I've had to be out shoveling the five inches of snow that has fallen so far today, and there's more on the way... :-(

    Thank you so much for sharing! It's always fascinating to hear which characters pop out as completely three-dimensional. I also remember being depressed after finishing EAST OF EDEN, because I'd been so engaged with the character of the father, Adam Trask. When I saw the movie years later, he was only a small part of the story, and not at all the robust character I remembered from the book.

    Another character who seems real to me is Adam Dalgleish from P.D. James's series. Even though the secondary characters are slightly more vivid in ways, she's always showing us the world through Dalgleish's eyes, and so we come to appreciate his wit, and his keen observation. And I think it's partly the precision of her language. She always uses just the right word in describing rooms, landscapes, characters and their traits.

    So enjoying this chat! Thank you all for stopping in. I have to speak to a school group this afternoon from 1-2 pm central (about Celtic imagery in my novels, if you don't mind), but I'll be checking in throughout the day and evening...

  16. Wonderful - a new series to explore! Congratulations on the book Erin Hart and thanks for your post here.

    Books do immerse me in a completely real world - and characters are very real to me. In fact, the reality of the world and characters is what determines if I finish a book of fiction. Exceptionally real worlds and characters inspire me to read the book again immediately - with more attention to detail and less to entertainment. Then I want to know what happens next - and sometimes they're so real that I imagine what I think will/should happen next. Total immersion!

    I really appreciate your posting about the brain science that confirms what I've always believed - that science would bear out my experience.

    The first characters I know I really believed in were probably Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden - I was always a sidekick in their adventures.

    Thanks for the opportunity to go on about this topic!

  17. Are authors more empathetic? I agree with Deb that most crime writers I know are lovely people... But if you think about it, our job requires a certain amount of empathy. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of all the different characters--sometimes even the villains--and see things from their point of view. That's what empathy is.

    One of the things I appreciate most about P.D. James (have I mentioned her already? ;-) is that she paints such three-dimensional portraits of ALL her characters, even the villains. A TASTE FOR DEATH is a case in point.

    If you've ever heard actors talk about how they create characters, especially villainous people, sometimes they'll say that every character is the hero of his own story, and that you can't judge a character while playing him or her. I think that's pretty true of novelists as well. We're curious about people--all different kinds of people, and about what makes them tick.

  18. What a coincidence. I'm right in the middle of The Book of Killowen. Marianne in Maine, I totally agree with your list of people. I would add Ian Rutledge from Charles Todd, Martha Grimes'Richard Jury, Sebastian St Cyr, and many more. I was reduced to tears by a character's death in Imogene Robertson's series.

  19. Hi Erin!
    Character that have stuck with me--Morse. I was so sad when he died. I felt it was a wasted life.
    Deb's Gemma and Duncan. Maisie Dobbs, Alan Banks, Reginald Hill's Daziel and Pascoe.... I've just noticed they are all British. I guess I like the connection to my homeland.

    And every day I get at least one email asking about my character Constable Evans. They want to know how he's doing and when he's coming back.

  20. So true, Erin, about writers' empathy. One of the things I've found as a writer is that it's increasingly hard to see the world in black and white. Does that make it harder for writers to be zealots, I wonder? Not that I don't think some actions are morally inexcusable, it's just that I can imagine how the person got to that place...

    And actors... very interesting about not judging while you are in a role.

  21. Erin, I think you make a great point about writers and empathy, using P.D. James as a great example -- to make "real" villains, I think the writer must have empathy for the villain's point of view. Not necessarily sympathy, but they must surely be able to stand in the shoes of that individual. Dana Stabenow has done a nice job of this in many cases and her most recent Kate Shugak book, Bad Blood, creates any number of believably flawed individuals that could have "done it."

    Reine talks about a "sense of community" and that is one of the reasons that I love mystery series so much... the characters do become part of my own inner life, and then when one comes to a site like this one or an author's facebook page, one "meets" the others who feel the same and I think we do all become part of something greater as a result. Thank you to the writers for that!

    Pat D., I know just which one you mean in Imogen Robertson's books... you just can't tell me that she and Deb and Louise Penny and Erin and Rhys and all the others mentioned here aren't writing "Litrachoor" just because if it is genre fiction... anyone who creates characters about whom one cares that much are clearly artists.

    Now I'm going to go nuke lunch and read some Lake of Sorrows. .

  22. Hi Erin!

    Since I've already read THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN, I can hereby heartily recommend it to the Jungle Red-sters.

    I love everything to with neuroscience. Your discussion gets me wondering why some people can't suspend belief. I have a friend who doesn't read fiction at all for that reason. Seems so strange to me. Theories?

    Cheers, Lisa

  23. I'm so glad you're back with Nora and Cormac, Erin. I almost didn't believe it when I saw you'd published the fourth. So welcome back!

    Before I discovered Deb Crombie and Julia Spencer-Fleming, it was Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley that has stayed with me. And from your own False Mermaid novel, Triona.

    And, ditto Kristopher's remarks, about not feeling silly referring to a book character as if they really existed.

    All the best with this fourth book; is no. 5 a WIP yet?!


  24. Fascinating discussion, Erin and Debs! I've always believed that readers learn as they read, even fiction. I grew up in a very dysfunctional household, but my reading taught me the ways normal people acted, allowing me to realize that the awful things happening weren't because I was bad or wrong and allowing me to pass as a normal person when I got free (while I worked with therapists to deal with some of the damage).

    I've often told my kids that they can learn from the mistakes characters make in books so they won't have to make their own. I think they believe me finally--now that they've made so many of their own. LOL

    And yes, a writer, like an actor, can't judge her/his villains while writing them. We must know how and why they see themselves as good and their actions as necessary. My friend Nancy Pickard told me once that she stopped writing her bestselling Truth series about a true-crime writer because she had to spend part of each book in the head of the murderer and she just couldn't stand to go there anymore.

  25. I have a couple of comments. In direct response to what charecter remains in my head is Jon Hassler's Agatha McGee. She was a feisty old spinster schoolteacher, reluctant to accept the changes Vatican II brought to the Catholic church. I know many like her, and was taught by a few of them!! As to commenting on the psychologist's findings about readers of fiction being more empathetic, i agree. But, we also open ourselves to the world and all the history those writers researched then inparted to us. A big Thank You for all the hard work, before writing, that goes on in the novelelist's world.

  26. Di made a good point about facebook being "addicting." Research done by a CSUN psychology professor, Dr. Delinah Hurwitz, suggests that people overuse social networking websites because of an addiction to endorphins released in the body during the process of posting.

    People become hooked to this process because endorphins rush through that person’s brain and body every time someone responds to their post.

    The link Erin provided was a fascinating one - Lovely to see physiological evidence that beautiful prose affects us at so many levels.

    Characters in literature do seem to become "friends" of a sort. (and Erin, I also cried when Beth died in Little Women!)The memorable ones for me have been all the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, many of Dickens's characters and Philip Roth's alter egos. I'm looking forward to making my aquaintnace with Nora Gavin!


  27. There have been many writers who have given me new friends - Jo March, Amelia Peabody, Nancy Drew, Hercule Poirot, Richard Jury and others. Each of them were real to me while I read and then when the story was done, I would rethink - their choices in life, the direction they were taking in their lives. Thank you for this, it is confirming that I am not as crazy as I thought.

  28. Wow, thanks for all the wonderful contributions to our discussion! I can see that you've all spent some time thinking about the reality of fiction... I'm eating all this up with a spoon!

    The neuroscience article was about descriptive, sensory language, but also about the power of words to spark places in the brain that sort through real experiences. Reine, I was so interested in what you said about reading a series out of order. Now I know why I'm so nerdy about that! And thanks for that peek behind the scenes into the competitive nature of neuroscience scanning technology -- who would have guessed?

    Linda, your comments about reading fiction for some cues about 'normal' behavior were so amazing and moving. Reading fiction, putting ourselves into different stories is really all about learning, about ourselves, about others, about the world.

  29. This whole discussion reminds me of those old ads: "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV..."

    I can just hear myself saying to someone, "I'm not an archaeologist, but I write about one in my books!"

  30. Quite fascinating. I've always "known" that reading broadens the "me" that I have contact with. It gives me more possibilities of ways to think and act.
    Equally important, I think, is that reading increasing vocabulary and one's ability to think clearly.
    Add to that the wonderful adventure it offers and it's a total win!

  31. Love Kristopher's comment:

    "The next time my friends laugh when I refer to a book character as if they really existed, I will pull out this study."

    So happy to oblige!

  32. Trixie, Cherry, China Bayles,Kate Shugak, and John Lloyd are some of the most "real" people I know. I've referenced John Lloyd Branson so many times that some of my friends are also convinced he is alive, well, infuriating, and practicing law in Canadian, Texas to this day.
    In Heinlein's book "The Number of the Beast" there is a section of plot that theorizes that books we've read become their own universe.
    My mother and I used to get very strange looks when we would make a visit to a bookstore. We'd be calling out things about characters as if they were real people as we read blurbs on the backs of books. I'm pretty sure at least a few clerks were concerned about the crazy people in the mystery section...

  33. I always look forward to a new book feom Erin.

  34. Thanks so much to everyone who joined the discussion! You've all been so entertaining -- and informative. Now you will all live in my imagination as characters, and I've got some new authors for my TBR pile, too!

    I loved Jon Hassler's Agatha McGee, too. Perhaps it's the fact that he's a fellow Minnesotan, but all of his characters are very real to me - I think I've read most of his novels, but THE LOVE HUNTER and SIMON'S NIGHT were two that stood out to me.

    Interesting question about the suspension of disbelief, Lisa. My husband is a huge fan of the American Wild West. He can read fiction (loves LONESOME DOVE more than any other novel ever), and he can read nonfiction, but when an author (even someone as good as Larry McMurtry) starts mixing up historical and fictional characters, he can't take it! Maybe your friend has a psychological block against reading about people who are made-up? It is curious, I agree!

    Loved what you said, Libby, about fiction offering you more options for thinking and acting and being. I think that's so true. We actually live in our imaginations; that's one reason to make sure it's a broad world in there!

    Sincere thanks, again, to everyone, for sharing your thoughts and experiences. It's always a delight to find such engaged and thoughtful readers; it warms the cockles of an author's heart. Nice to know we're not alone, isn't it, in counting fictional characters among our friends?

  35. Already read "The Book of Killowen". Awesome as usual. The besto part about a new Erin Hart coming out is that I go back to read the others so I know where everything is coming from, and get to experience her writing all over again!!!