Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What Julia's Reading...While Writing

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Every writer – I was going to say every fiction writer, but I suspect non-fiction authors and memoirists and poets have the same issue – eventually confronts the question of what to read while working. Not at the beginning of the book, necessarily, or while researching or later, at the back end, editing and proofing. But when your teeth are at the throat of the thing, wrestling with language and plot and characters until you feel like the WWF on a Saturday night, you find there are books you can take, and books you cannot.

I don't mean those works that sit beside the computer to which the author refers feverishly throughout the current project. They're usually not the sort of things you want to sink into at the end of a long day: in my case, the working pile consists of baby name guides and books on Adirondack geography, flora, and fauna; compiled histories of small upstate New York towns and true crime texts; the Book of Common Prayer and a Hymnal.

But most authors get into the game because we're desperate readers, and cracking open a good book at bedtime or on the lunch break or in the bathroom is what we do for fun. (On a side note: has anyone else ever had to fill out a form detailing your leisure interests only to realize you're the most boring person ever? Hobbies: Binge-watching Masterpiece Theatre and reading.) The problem arises when you find there are certain types of literature you have to avoid unless you want to either become an inadvertent plagiarist or throw in the towel in despair and return to the law. (If you didn't come from the law, this can be a particularly difficult path.)

I cannot consume other authors' mysteries while trying to hammer out my own. I recall one time, when I was re-reading my friend Jeff Cohen's Comedy Tonight series, which are pretty much straight-up silliness with a few deaths thrown in for Jeff to hang gags on. The next day, my police chief and priest started cracking wise like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. Or two years ago, when I picked up Kent Krueger's ORDINARY GRACE. I spent a whole afternoon crying and reading, reading and crying, and it was only a stern talking-to from my husband that kept me from quitting writing altogether.

So what can I read? Historical fiction has always been a favorite, and right now I'm enjoying WOLF HALL, by Hilary Mantel, which I checked out of the library because I wanted to prep for the Masterpiece Theatre version, only to discover it was, to use the phrase, un-put-downable. A Man Booker Prize-winning pager turner! Who would have thunk it?

I also adore Historical Romance, and while I was away in Nantucket I binged on a new-to-me author, Courtney Milan, who writes in the mid-to-late Victorian era (which is rare) has overtly feminist themes (even rarer) and who consistently sets up Romance themes and tropes only to subvert them. Plus, utterly swoonable heroes. 


I've recently gotten into reading Fantasy again, after years and years of post-Tolkien fatigue. (I still flinch when I see one of the groan-worthy fantasy cliches in a novel.) Instead, I've become fond of urban fantasy – Dana Cameron's Fangborn series is a nice example of this – which isn't, I suppose, necessarily urban, but set in modern times. The Ben Aaronovitch series I've been devouring is, however, very urban – the civitas illa magna, London. The Rivers of London, to be precise, which in these fantasy/police procedural hybrids refer to various meddling and feuding goddesses as well as bodies of water.

Finally, my old love Science Fiction. A genre filled with innovative, challenging and thought-provoking work out there – which is probably why I'm engaged in my annual comfort re-read of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series. I've revisited each volume in the adventures of the scarred and manic Miles Vorkosigan (and his family and friends) yearly, since publication, meaning I've now read SHARDS OF HONOR, which I finished last week, at least twenty-nine times.

Imagine how good a novel has to be to read it twenty-nine times?

How about you, dear reader? What are the other genres you escape into? If you're a writer yourself, what do you read or not read while creating?


  1. Hi Julia! I'm making a list of all your favorites, because they sound wonderful. I think I also must be world's most boring person because at a reading recently someone asked me if I had any hobbies — and I really could come up with nothing beyond reading. (Does napping count?)

    I tend to read so much non-fiction while working that my brain (and eyes) tend to shut down by the end of the day — but comfort reading always included rereading Laurie Colwin, Robin McKinley (I think you'd really like her), and MFK Fisher.

  2. I must be singularly boring since I cannot profess to having a "hobby" . . . I've not yet discovered anything that makes me want to put down my book.
    Science fiction has always been a particular favorite and is still one of the first genres I tend to choose.

  3. Andre Norton's Witch World series, read and re-read, Patricia McKillup's The Riddlemaster of Hed series, the Belgariad, and, of course, Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword.... Why oh why hasn't someone made that into a movie? If one could do justice to the entire Harry Potter oeuvre, why not The Blue Sword??

    Keep writing, Julia, though, because mysteries are my lifeblood and I'm cravin' a fix!

  4. What great suggestions. I do read mysteries while I'm writing them - I guess I've figured out how to keep my voice distinct from other authors'. I also read historicals, especially if they are set in the late 1800s when my new series is set. And now I'm going to check out those historical romances, Julia!

    I haven't read sci fi in many years. Any recommendations for new stuff with strong women?

  5. I thought I was the only one who couldn't read fiction while deep in writing. I read gardening and cooking essays instead, and decorating books. I keep a big fat Norton poetry anthology on the kitchen counter, to browse in while cooking dinner.

  6. I agree, Susan--hobbies! Hilarious Worrying, does that count?

    Well, I read thrillers, too…but Ive lost the ability to read without editing, and the sign of a truly good book is when I can stop my critical brain and just lose myself in the pages. It doesn't happen too often--I guess that last time was in Shannon Kirk's Method 15/30 which will be out MAy 5. Watch for it! It's a psychological thriller.

    It also happened with BIrdBox--until the ending.Oh, and The Martian!

  7. Reading - yes. Always. Constantly. Everything. Womens's Fiction, Southern Lit, Mysteries, Romantic Suspense, Thrillers, Biographies and Memoirs. I cannot imagine getting into bed at night and not reading before turning off the light. But other hobbies too - photography, collage, knitting and needlework (which is why it takes me forever to write and to be happy I'm able to do it at my own speed).

  8. I can read anything while I'm writing. But I find if I immerse myself in one genre for too long, I get genre-fatigue and have to switch to something completely different. For example, I read three or four mystery/thrillers in a row, and I had to go lighter. Of course for "lighter" I choose Fellowship of the Ring (and in reading, I can completely see why Peter Jackson made the cinematic choices he did).

    Read Vorkosigan. I should re-read the Belgariad (his best series, in my opinion). But the absolute go-to favorite for "I just need something to read that makes me happy"? Harry Potter. My copies are falling apart. So that means I can buy new ones, right?

  9. Since I'm a non-fiction writer, reading fiction still works when I'm in the middle of a project.

    But music is a different story. My monkey brain latches onto lyrics and will not leave me alone, so I have to stick to listening to orchestral music only while writing. Otherwise, earworms get in the way of everything else, creatively.

  10. Oh, Karen, we could have an entire group discussion on music we can or can't listen to while writing. I've come to see writers' relationship with music is as varied as the way they approach their work.

    Susan, I forgot napping! I'm definitely going to add that to my list of hobbies.

    And I've made a correction on the original blog - turns out Myrna Loy did not star with Clark Gable in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. It was my 22-year-old who corrected me, which at least shows I've raised my kids on the right monies.

  11. Correction: that would be raised the kids on the right MOVIES. I supposed I raised them on the right monies, as well. Inasmuch as a full-time writer has monies.

  12. Julia, Diane Hale here. I knew you read, or must have read sci-fi when I ran across a reference to my step-dad's most seminal story--The Cold Equations. I also love Bujold's writing, both her Vorkosigan series and her fantasy series. I reread all of them so many times the paperbacks are falling apart. Tolkien is timeless and a reminder of the the beauty of prose. Can't leave out Dick Francis--he wrote amazingly well-written morality plays.

  13. I'm currently trapped in a binge-watch of Ghost Whisperer and don't have time to read much which is scary and so unlike me. But there's only so much free time, eh?

    In the past couple years I've expanded out of my beloved historical mysteries. I've rediscovered my love of SFF, particularly space opera -- oddly, however, I don't like stories with aliens in them, just humans in space :) I dabble in reading some romance and YA dystopians. The past couple years I had a reading goal to read at least one nonfiction book a month. So now when I look over my little black book listing what I've read, it's quite diverse but my progress in my usual suspects of mystery authors that I love is lacking. It's a give and take.

  14. Julia, I'm a huge Ben Aaronovitch fan. I discovered Rivers of London while IN London a few years ago. Now I pre-order the books from the UK. I'm also a huge fan of Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden books (not his sword and sorcery series) which I guess puts me firmly in the urban fantasy camp.

    Right now I'm rereading The Lord of the Rings for the first time in at least a decade, and even though the things I SHOULD be reading are nagging at me, I'm not putting it down until I finish it.

    I can read some mysteries while I'm in the nose-to-the-grindstone stage of writing, but they can either make me want to quit writing, or as Hank mentions, get out my red pen. Much safer with fantasy, historical fiction and mysteries, or biographies. And I will read fluffy romance if it's British:-)

  15. Julia, I love to read about what you're reading or like to read. I really don't see how authors find time to read other authors, but as you noted that one reason an author gets into writing is that she/he is a reader, it makes sense that you would have to have your reading fix, too. I had hoped to get to Wolf Hall before the TV show started, but, alas, I didn't. I am enjoying the TV series thus far, and the fact that Louis Bayard is doing a review of it each week is a real bonus. I don't know if readers here followed his Downton Abbey recaps, but they were delightful. His Wolf Hall recaps are on the serious side, with an occasional barb.

    Also, Julia, your remark about being boring when it comes to listing hobbies on a form really struck a chord with me. I have long felt a bit inadequate in listing reading and not some awe inspiring feat like mountain climbing or swimming with sharks. I sometimes put down walking because I feel like I should have some physical activity listed, and sitting in a chair for hours while reading doesn't seem physical enough. Like you say, Joan, it's hard to find something "that makes me want to put down my book."

    Other genres than mystery that I enjoy? Well, I adore time travel, which is usually considered science fiction, but I think it can cross genres. Historical fiction is a favorite, as I love stories based on actual events. Right now I'm reading Katherine Howe's Conversion, which ties in with the Salem Witch Trials. I'm attendint a book festival this weekend where Ms. Howe will be (along with Diana Gabaldon, Jamie Ford, and Anna Lee Huber). I do enjoy some fantasy, and I'm trying to work my way toward Dana Cameron's Fangborn series (glad to know you enjoy it, Julia). I've looked at The Rivers of London, and now you, Julia, and you, Debs, have me interested in those.

    I am way behind on my general fiction reading, such as Amy Tan's latest from last year, but I love mystery so much and there's so much mystery to read that it's impossible to keep up everywhere. Maybe on the next form where I have to list hobbies I'll write in book marathon or book sprinting.

  16. Love this topic, Julia. When I'm deep into my writing, I tend to read poetry - I helps me keep rhythm in my sentences and I am often inspired by various passages.

    Susan, I didn't realize we are fellow Colwin and Fisher fans. I adore both and reread them regularly.

    I also like to read my favorite writers while I'm writing (people like Graham Green and Michael Ondaatje) because even though I will never achieve what they have achieved, they push me to try my best.

  17. I *loved* Wolf Hall. Brilliant. Mesmerizing. So not what I usually read that it made me search out other books/authors that were outside my comfort zone.

  18. I do have other Hobbies, but I have to make myself put down a book to attend to the business of living...like cleaning house, cooking,..... I am addicted to your books, Julia, and Deborah Crombie too, anxiously awaiting your next books!!!! Please hurry, we are in "withdrawal" here!!
    Always have a book with me, or in the Kindle that my hubby got me,'cause "I always have my nose in a book"!!!

  19. Wolf Hall is a great tale. However, I had one beef with the book, and that's how Mantell so rarely identified the speaker of quotes. It was always "he said", but the "he" of the "said" was left to my imagination. I got lost more than a few times as to who was speaking when.

    I must not be the only person who noted that, because in "Bring Up the Bodies" it's much better.

  20. Julia, thanks for the kind words about the Fangborn books! Kathy, I hope you enjoy them, too.

    I tend to stick with essays or non-fiction when I'm in the thick of things. Popular physics is very soothing. Susan, I love MFK Fisher, too--used her a lot when I was teaching. Hank, THE MARTIAN was super!

  21. When I'm feeling sick my go to comfort reading is PG Wodehouse - not saying that writing must be like being sick, but I imagine the need for escapism is similar .... The cross-pollination to the world of Clare and Russ might be interesting!

  22. Julia, just thinking about Clare and Russ wisecracking à la Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in "It Happened One Night" has had me chuckling all day . . .

  23. that line caught my funny bone too Joan! I kind of like reading other mysteries when I'm writing--I get so many good ideas. Things that I should know and probably already do, but forgot.

    Right now I'm reading Patricia and Walter Wells's memoir called WE'VE ALWAYS HAD PARIS...AND PROVENCE. Great fun and good writing too.

  24. When not reading mysteries/thrillers, I like to read memoirs, or books of essays (Anne Lamott, Dave Barry, Kathleen Norris are among my favorites), or books on travel to places I'll never get to.

    I own all of Barbara Pym's books and reread the same ones just about every year, and also reread my favorite childhood books, the Betsy/Tacy books written by Maud Hart Lovelace so often that I've nearly memorized them!

  25. I love reading historical documents. I'm still working my way through The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents 1610 to 1791. Really. I love it.

  26. If you haven't read Deborah Harkness' All Souls Trilogy I highly recommend it. Historical fiction wrapped in the paranormal.

    I do not read anything in the genre I am writing in. Like you, it highjacks my characters voices and influences the plot.

  27. Just learned LMB has written another Vorkosigan starring our beloved Cordelia: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, due out in early 2016. I'm off to re-read that series a 30th time.

  28. Someone on my Bujold mailing list posted a link here, and I'm so glad I visited! I've got to look up your favorites, because I see you already have three of my top twenty on your list (-:. (Bujold, Aaronovitch and Milan -- haven't tried the others, but now I'm heading to Amazon.)

    Some of the others on my list are Jennifer Crusie (her stand-alone contemporary romance Bet Me is one of my all-time favorite books), Terry Pratchett (sniff, sniff, quaff in mourning), and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

    P&P is one of those 29 re-reads and counting books -- and strangely enough, it's one of those rare books that works synergistically with the screen version of itself -- the BBC mini-series is something I've watched two or three times every year ever since I discovered it. I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but I didn't get into P&P as such a fangirl until I watched it.