Monday, March 12, 2012

Writers Must Be Readers: What Books Inspire Me (You may be surprised!)

I get this question a lot. I gave some general answers in my opening post on this blog back in October, 2011, but I thought it might be interesting to delve into the specifics of why I decided to write a book.

Most writers (and all good ones) love to read, and I'm no exception. I can't remember a time when I didn't enjoy reading, and I don't think I'm exceptional when I admit that I've read my favorite books many times over. If anything, I tend to be a little obsessive about reading the same books over and over, and I have to force myself sometimes to try a new author or genre.

One of the first authors who grabbed me was Alistair MacLean. He was the preeminent writer of thrillers back in the 1960's, and I'm always amazed at the number of name authors who credit him for being a molding force in their work. I'm not a name author, but he was a huge influence on me. There's a reason Eb has the same last name (I decided early on to use a lower-case "L" for Eb, just to make his last name a bit different).

Alistair MacLean instilled a love of mystery and intrigue in me that remains, and I was very sad to see how he declined toward the end as age and alcoholism took the wind out of his sails...his last books were barely readable. I never read those books--I don't want to remember him that way.

MacLean was the first writer who hooked me on the idea of telling a great story, but another writer made the idea of writing exciting because he used language in such a telling way. Reading his prose was (and still is) like watching water flow in a fast-moving stream, and I still grab one of his books when I need inspiration. Nothing else in print gets me charged up to write like his work. So who is this guy? One of the masters? Hemingway? Faulkner?

Not even close.

His name was Colin Fletcher, and the book that so moved me was a book on...walking. Not only a book on walking, but a how-to book, describing the practical and technical aspects of backpacking.

Make no mistake--"The Complete Walker" is every bit of a how-to book, still regarded as definitive by many (there were several editions, revised and updated over the years), but it is so much more. Colin Fletcher never let the jargon get in the way of his real mission. He was simply a master at inspiring the reader to walk, to think about walking, and to think about the "feel-how" of loving the outdoors and experiencing nature to its fullest. Alistair MacLean inspired me to think about storytelling, but Colin Fletcher made me love writing.

"In the desert you rediscover, every time you go back, the cleanness that exists in spite of the dust, the complexity that under-lies the apparent openness, and the intricate web of life that stretches over the apparent barrenness; but above all you rediscover the echoing silence that you had thought you would never forget." - Colin Fletcher 

There are many other books that inspire me, but the real reason I decided to write a book was because I read all of Jack Higgins's books. I'm not always sure why I like his books, and I get infuriated when he uses the same plot devices over and over. He's a writer (his real name is Harry Patterson, and some of his work was published under that name) who writes to a specific formula, so the characters are eerily similar from one book to the next; Sean Dillon is basically the same character as Liam Devlin--not only in mannerisms, but right down to the physical description of the two characters. Hell, forget "basically the same"... they could be clones. It may infuriate me, but Jack (or more accurately, Harry) is laughing all the way to the bank. There must be something about his formula that grabs me, because he's still writing, and I still buy his books.

But the big thing is this--Jack Higgins made me believe I could write, and that infuriating formulaic style of his convinced me that I could write just as well as he could. Hell, I was absolutely sure I could do better! (From a bank balance standpoint I still have a ways to go before I catch him--and of course now, after trying it myself, I see that writing is a bit tougher than I first assumed.)
I always wonder if other writers started out with the same mindset that I had. I know some of you did.

There are other writers who inspired me, but the truth is that I was sure I had a book in me, and I was able to learn enough to get by from reading.
Reading is the key--and every book, good or bad, has something to teach me. I read Janet Evanovich because her writing helps me understand how to write from scene-to-scene, and I read Ken Follet because I love how he can make his good characters flawed while also making his evil characters human. I marvel at Hemmingway's short stories because he understood human nature so well (I must say it didn't help him much--or worse, it might have been the root of all his problems).
I've been haunted by water ever since reading Norman Maclean, and Louise Dickinson Rich made me love the Maine woods. John A. Murray and Rick Bass helped me become fascinated by grizzly bears, and Bruce Catton made the Civil War real. Harper Lee made me idolize Gregory Peck...and Gregory Peck made me marvel at the genius of Harper Lee. I can honestly say that I've read all of her books--every single one.

The real reason I write books is because they grab me...and they always have and always will. I write books that I would want to read, and I know I haven't done well enough on a particular book when I want to run away from reading it after writing it. I knew "Judgment Tramp" was good because I read it over and over once it was finished--and that's quite a thing for a writer to say after going through the torture of writing a book!

What books have inspired you and why? Any surprises?


  1. Ok, I want this Colin Fletcher book. I love walking! Sounds like just what I need to soothe my soul.

    Books that have inspired me, oh so many! Othello, The Tempest, Pride and Prejudice, Mahabharat, Chronicles of Narnia. Roald Dahl was a huge influence on me when I was a child, I read everything of his I could get my hands on.


    1. Remember that it is a how-to book, so a lot of it just what you would think--detailed info on how to choose a sleeping bag, or what to look for in a tent. But the book is written beautifully, and full of great stories of his backpacking adventures.