Reading Outside My Comfort Zone
By Elizabeth Blackwell
Can we all agree that the old chestnut “Write what you know” is pretty useless advice? The lure of writing for many people—especially fantasy writers—is to write what you don’t
know. To escape into an entirely different reality, even if that made-up world is inspired in part by real places, people, or situations.
When I’m asked to give advice about writing, my current favorite suggestion is “Write what you read.” As someone who spent part of the 1990s working on a bad Bridget Jones Diary
rip-off, I can say from experience that jumping on the latest literary trend doesn’t automatically make your book more saleable. Thinking I’d be the next hot chick-lit author when I read hardly any chick-lit didn’t exactly work out.
When I began writing While Beauty Slept
, I wasn’t thinking in terms of marketing. I just wrote the kind of book I liked to read, a book that was a mix of historical fiction and fantasy, a book that allowed me to wander (virtually) through a castle and eavesdrop on royal gossip and intrigue. In spirit, it was a mix of many books I’d read over many years, both fiction and non-fiction, from Pillars of the Earth
to Game of Thrones
to historian Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror
But now that my book is out, and I’ve been chatting with bloggers and visiting bookstores, I’ve realized that writing what you read will only take you so far. If you want to progress and grow as a writer, you should also read what you don’t
write. There are great writers working in every genre, and if you get too insulated, your work eventually will suffer.
Take, for example, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, contemporary, male-focused thrillers that are in many ways the polar opposite of While Beauty Slept
. For me, Child’s books are the literary equivalent of candy: they go down quickly and easily, leaving me pleasantly, mildly buzzed. It is extremely unlikely that I will ever write an action thriller like Child, but I’ve learned a lot about plotting and suspense from him—tricks that might someday show up in my future work.
Another one of my favorite writers is Tana French, author of the mystery In the Woods
and three other books set in modern Dublin. Again, I am pretty sure I will never write a series focused on foul-mouthed, cynical Irish detectives. But French’s ear for dialogue, the way she creates conversations that ring true? That’s something I would love to emulate.
Then there are the many writers who jump between genres and blur the lines between them. I’ve been incredibly inspired by writers such as Dan Simmons, who was able to combine futuristic sci-fi with classical Greece in Ilium
, or Diana Gabaldon, who mixes fantasy, historical fiction, romance and action in her Outlander
series. They—and many, many others—show that there are really no boundaries in literature, as long as your writing and characters ring true.
One side effect of having a book out is that you end up hearing about a lot of other new books coming out at the same time, and then you end up buying a bunch of them because they sound so good. I’ve got a pile of new books to read, almost none of them similar to While Beauty Slept
. For a while, I will be reading the kinds of books I don’t write—and I can’t wait.
|Photo by Jill Brazel Photography|
As the daughter of a U.S. Foreign Service officer, Elizabeth grew up in Washington, D.C., interspersed with stretches in Africa, the Middle East and Italy. She graduated from Northwestern University with a double major in history and communications and later received a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. In her varied career, she has worked as a restaurant hostess, waitress, TV station receptionist, medical school secretary, magazine editor and freelance writer. Book author is by far her favorite of the bunch.
Elizabeth lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, three children and an ever-growing stack of must-read books. To find out what she's been reading lately, visit her page on Goodreads