At a retreat with writer friends earlier this year, Anne Gracie (http://www.annegracie.com/)suggested that we should make a list of the things we really enjoy in the novels we read. As a writer, I found the results of this exercise rather interesting and helpful, so I thought I’d share the exercise with you. But I might spoil the usefulness of it if I tell you about my experience first.
So… before you read on, why don’t you make a list of those aspects you love about your favourite books? In other words, make your list of ingredients for a really good read.
Don’t cheat now…
Great, I’ll continue.
When I did this exercise, I didn’t hesitate to start my list and I scribbled madly, jotting down random thoughts as soon as they arrived.
As it turned out, right at the top of my list was: a sense of place.
It had been an instinctive reaction, but my choice of “place” to head my list was a revelation. Just the same, I knew it was accurate. All my favourite books have brought the story’s setting alive for me. That’s not to say that the characters and the plot weren’t important, too… but setting has played an extremely important role.
And when I thought about this further, I realised that this trend obviously started when I was a child. I don’t know how old I was when I read Heidi, but I was absolutely entranced by the image of her living way up in the Swiss Alps with her grandfather. For an Australian, in sub-tropical Brisbane, that picture of the towering snow-capped mountains, the little timber cottage, Alpine meadows and grazing goats was magical.
At around that same time, I started using the local library, and the first books I read was a series about sets of twins in various parts of the world. There were Dutch twins, Inuit twins, Japanese twins… and the books took me into the day to day realities of their worlds.
You might feel prompted to ask why I didn’t become a travel writer, but of course, my first love has always been fiction. I also loved strong characters and exciting plot twists. The settings were the icing on the cake.
Let’s take another of my favourite childhood reads, Anne of Green Gables. The highly impulsive and imaginative young redhead, Anne Shirley, captured hearts of girl readers around the globe. But I have to ask – would Anne have become so real to us if we hadn’t also been drawn into her world?
Do you remember her little bedroom in Green Gables with the white bed and the (Snow Queen) apple tree outside the window… or the orchard slope… the spruce wood, the rutted red roads and the bridges of Avonlea?
All my life, I have longed to see Prince Edward Island.
In recent years I’ve been transported regularly to snowbound Northern Scotland or to the cliffs and beaches of warm and sunny Cornwall in books by Rosamunde Pilcher. I’ve spent the whole gamut of seasons with a community living in the Catskill Mountains while reading Susan Wigg’s Lakeshore Chronicles.
And one of the things I love about the Harlequin Romance line is the wide range of settings – America, Europe, the Middle East, the UK, Australia…
Of course… your reading preferences are entirely personal. I don’t expect everyone to share my love of richly detailed settings. But the point of Anne Gracie’s exercise was this… when a writer identifies what she loves in the books she reads, she usually discovers something important about her own writing.
And that was something of a light bulb moment for me.
Until then, my inclusion of Outback settings in my books had been pretty much hit and miss. It all started by accident. When our children were little we couldn’t afford expensive holidays and we used to camp on a riverbank on a friend’s cattle property. After three rejections from Mills and Boon, I decided to set a book in the Outback… and it was the book that sold.
Now, I’m not saying that I have pages and pages of description in the book and I know that the Outback setting was not the reason it sold. I put most of my effort into creating a sexy hero and a strong heroine, and that elusive ingredient – emotional punch. But I do think my focus on the setting and the chance to convey my love of Outback Queensland helped me to find my writing voice.
And now, thanks to this exercise, I know it’s a quality I’ll continue to foster in my books – it’s part of my voice, of who I am.
So what’s on your list? I’d love to hear! If you’re a writer, did you find elements in your reading preferences that matched with your writing voice? Did you discover any food for thought?
If you’re a reader, could you see a pattern in the ingredients of your favourite books?
Barbara Hannay’s latest book Adopted: Outback Baby is set in the Queensland Outback and a cottage by the sea in Victoria. But she will be focused on other aspects of craft such as characters, plot and emotional punch when she joins Barbara McMahon and Jessica Hart in a workshop at RWA San Francisco called "Emotion, emotion, emotion – writing romance with global appeal".