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Why Reading Fiction Counts as Research for the Writer

Mon, 2012-07-30 17:03 -- Jocelyn Green

When I decided to write fiction, I bought a small library’s worth of books on various aspects of the craft: plot structure, characterization, dialogue, self-editing, etc. They have been extremely helpful. But there are some things that are better caught, than taught. That’s why I highly recommend reading good fiction whether you are an aspiring writer or a seasoned pro. That’s also how I can justify reading a novel when my own book deadline is looming on the not-so-far horizon. Today I’d like to share with you a few of the passages I’ve underlined in my books, as well as the notes I’ve written in the margins. Hopefully this will inspire you to pick up a book and feel good about the investment of time!

From To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather, the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; boy mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. (page 5)

Harper Lee could have said that the town of Maycomb was really hot. Instead, she used the “show, don’t tell” rule masterfully. I can almost feel the sweat trickling down my spine as I read this. I love the simile in the last sentence, too.

From Lady in the Mist by Laurie Alice Eakes:

Mist swirled around her, smelling of the sea and the tang of freshly turned earth, muffling the click of her heels on cobblestone and brick pavement. (Page 8 )

Love this. Usually mist is described in visual terms, but Laurie Alice adds the smell and sound of it, too, for a much richer description.

“Press-gang.” The word burst from her like a curse, and her heart began to race. Her mouth went dry, tasting bitter. She tried to scramble to her feet. She needed to warn the village men to stay inside. But her cloak and skirts tangled around her, holding her down. “Let me help you.” Still speaking in an undertone, he stooped before her. She caught an exotic scent like sandalwood, saw no more than a shadowy outline and dark hair tumbling around features pale in the misty gloom. (page 12)

Laurie Alice put all five senses into these two brief paragraphs. Sight: the shadowy outline, dark hair, pale features. Sound: the word bursting from her, the undertone of his voice. Smell: sandalwood. Taste: her mouth tasting bitter. Touch: her mouth going dry, the cloak and skirts tangling her legs.

Images of the Englishman filled her head, tingled along her fingers, danced down her spine. She despised the way she thrilled to his flirtation, his touch. (page 15)

Nice! She shows how a memory makes us feel, physically.

From My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira:

A second floor crouched between a third and the first. Low ceilinged, claustral, darker even than James Blevens’s surgery that day in April, the hallway angled through the series of squat additions that made up the Union Hotel. (page 117)

Robin uses personification (crouched, squat) to give this setting a personality, a characterization all its own. The following excerpt is an exchange between a doctor at the Union Hotel hospital during the Civil War, and the nurse, Mary Sutter.

They moved on. “This one can’t breathe.” “Give him whiskey.” “This one can’t walk.” “Give him whiskey.” “That one can’t stop itching.” “Give him whiskey.” “This one has got diarrhea.” “Haven’t they all?” “We’ve run out of quinine.” “Give oil of turpentine.” “We’ve run out of turpentine.” “Then boil some willow bark and put it in whiskey and give it to him.” “We’ve run out of whiskey.” (pages 197-198)

This rapid-fire dialogue shows very economically the limited resources and hopeless situations they ran into all day long. Very effective.

From Heiress by Susan May Warren: I read this on my Kindle, so I don’t have page numbers for these excerpts.

The words seemed to slither out, and Jinx tasted in them the poison she intended.

Wow. Susan added touch and taste to “the words” for a drama you can feel. Susan also does a great job adding meaningful beats of hesitation into dialogue, such as the examples below (all from different scenes):

He let her words dissolve in the frosty air before he answered. She stared at her curved hand in his, unable to meet his eyes, tasting her heartbeat. She looked up at him, words netted in her chest. Jinx stilled. Something in Esme’s voice—she couldn’t be serious. The silence tore through Jinx like a dagger. She’d longed to flee, her heart already outside her chest, but horror affixed her to the parquet floor. With certainty, the truth slid through her, solidified, turned her heart to marble. The thought pressed into her, grew blades. He looked away then, as if his words cost him.

From A Heart Revealed by Julie Lessman: While reading novels by Julie Lessman, I noticed that she very rarely uses the word “said” in her dialogue. She usually uses beats instead of tags, and it’s far more effective that way. For example, she could have written: “All right, Charity, I’ll talk,” he said. “I want you to leave me alone…” Instead of saying “he said” (a tag) she used a beat, injecting much more emotion:

“All right, Charity, I’ll talk.” He faced her point-blank, his voice a cold blade with deadly intent. “I want you to leave me alone…”

Amazing difference! She does this throughout the book. Using my Kindle, I did a search for “tone” in A Heart Revealed to see other ways she described the characters’ voices, and came up with pages and pages of examples like the following phrases:

A tinge of hurt in her tone Affection bated her tone Tease lacing her tone An edge of respect in her tone Tone hushed with respect Worry threading her tone Sincerity softening the plea of her tone In a tone as tight as the muscles in his face Tears in her eyes betrayed the gruff edge of her tone. Her tone was as tart as one of those lemon drops she kept on her desk. He tried to temper the edge in his tone Hint of humor in her tone Shame evident in his tone Wistfulness laced her tone He closed his eyes again, tone tired and lips flat. In a clipped tone With finality in his tone A teasing brogue slipping into her tone Contrition heavy in her tone Her tone rang with an authority she seldom employed. In a rigid tone Apology laced his tone Tone void of remorse (or warmth) Confused by the bite in his tone The sharpness of his tone heated her cheeks. Accusation thick in his tone Mirth laced her tone. His tone was suddenly strained.

Up until I did this search (and this list is not the complete results!) I had not been thinking of all the ways I could describe a character’s voice to portray emotion. See, Julie? I told you I was reading your novels for research! :) These are just five novels that have inspired me to improve my own writing in various ways. But virtually every novel I read shows me something, so I can never read a book without a pen in my hand. If it’s a library book, I keep a notebook and pen handy so I can copy down what I notice. Tell me—what have you underlined in a book lately, and why? I would love to know!


Submitted by Laurie Alice Eakes on
Thank you for lining my book up between these great authors. I feel like that second floor in the one example.

Submitted by Jocelyn Green on
Of course! You are the master when it comes to really giving those rich sensory descriptions. You stood out to me right away when I first read this book.

This is the introduction that I love to hear when watching one of my favorite movies. The book came out in 1960 when I was in junior high, and later I saw the movie. It was one of the few movies that I recall being very much like the book. The beautifully descriptive writing Lee shares with readers about the lazy southern town and how it looks grabs her audience. What has always amazed me is her friendship with author Truman Capote whose work she often proof-read. In comparison when the movie "In Cold Blood" came out, I foolishly went to see it. I don't know of a movie that disturbed me so much, it was one of the first in the later 60's that showed much violence. It proves that two people can come from the same area and write completely different!

Submitted by Jocelyn Green on
How interesting, Diane! I don't think I knew that Harper proofed Truman's work. I read "In Cold Blood" for one of my English classes in college as we were studying literary nonfiction, and I was convinced that's what I wanted to write at the time. I loved The Perfect Storm, for another example. But the book itself was really haunting, and the movie was pretty disturbing. You're absolutely right--two people can come from the same era, even be friends, and write totally different genres. Happens all the time today, too.

I write historical fiction, so I have a little different angle on your question. During my undergraduate work, a text was assigned entitled "Understanding American History Through Fiction." In it, the author strove to provide realistic insight into the "life and times" of various eras through snippets of fictional accounts written about that time period (e.g., "Gone With The Wind" for the Civil War). I think it was very effective in its design. If the research is quality, so will the realism of the fiction. So, although your question focuses on style, why shouldn't it be valuable for content research as well? Thanks for the opportunity to respond. Cheers! Bruce

Submitted by Jocelyn Green on
Hi Bruce, oh I would have loved "Understanding American History Through Fiction"! I write historical fiction too, based on the Civil War right now, and I do read a lot of other books, both nonfiction and fiction set in the Civil War. The key is making sure the research behind the novels we read is quality, as you said. My Name is Mary Sutter, for example, had loads of historical facts in it, and if I hadn't seen some of it before in my own nonfiction research, it was easy for me to look up the facts in her novel and find out if it was fact or part of her fictional tale. However, I know of another novel that is set during the Civil War, and the author had the war starting in the wrong month. If she got that simple fact wrong, who knows what else was inaccurate? Not my kind of historical fiction. One of my absolute favorite authors of historical fiction is Philippa Gregory, who has written many novels about Tudor England. She includes bibliographies in the backs of her novels, which is something I now do, as well. The best historical fiction, for me, is the kind that teaches me about history and makes me want to do my own research on it once I turn the last page of the novel. Thanks for the great discussion, Bruce!

Submitted by Jocelyn Green on
Hi again Bruce, I just went to your Amazon Author page to get to know you a little more. Thank you for your service to our country for so many years, and please tell your wife thank you as well! If you've clicked around on my Web site at all, you may already know I'm a former military wife myself. Writing devotions for military wives was how I broke into publishing. If you know any military wives in need of encouragement, consider sending them to! Thank you!

Jocelyn, Thanks again for the opportunity to respond to such a great question. This is first time I've encountered one like it on a writing blog, though I'm not sure why. It's very insightful. And thanks for your equally valuable sacrifices for our country. I've seen first hand how a spouse can make or break a military career. And I'll definitely check out Cheers! Bruce

Whew, GREAT examples in this blog, Joss, and glad I could set the "tone" on tone! ;) HOLY COW, I knew I talked about "tone" a lot (LOVE that word!), but had no it was that much!! ;) But I appreciate you using my book as an example of research you do! :) Trust me, if I when I write A Civil War historical, Wedded to War will be a MUST-READ RE-READ!! :) Hugs, Julie

Submitted by Jocelyn Green on
But Julie, you did it REALLY well, in a way that was natural and organic to each scene. At no point while I was reading the novel did I think, "Gee, Jules sure does like to talk about tone." Nope--I was too into the story to even notice! It was only when I did that search on Kindle that I found all the different ways you used it. And it was really helpful for me! Thanks for stopping by! Hugs back atcha. :)

Submitted by Laurie Alice Eakes on
Bruce and I must have had profs from the same school of teaching. I've had a few history profs who have done this--used fiction to teach history. Boy do I remember things like the Massacre at Lucknow and the Renaissance through the eyes of two star-crossed lovers, and the Hazards of New Fortunes in the Golden Age... Jocelyn, were I teaching Civil War history, I would use your book. Even in women's history, too, since I was a gender studies nerd.

Submitted by Jocelyn Green on
Thanks Laurie Alice! Author Kathi Macias is currently working on a novel based on Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, so she actually did read Wedded to War as part of her research. :)

Hi Jocelyn ~ I was initially drawn to this post because of the reference to To Kill a Mockingbird (which happens to be my 2nd favorite book, behind Jane Eyre). But after reading your post, I now feel vindicated in all of the time I've spent reading! ; ) I've enjoyed my time reading fiction - either the classics or Christian Fiction. Your post was enjoyable, informative AND it highlighted fantastic examples of how we can learn from each other as writers. I was inspired by all of the authors here. Thank you so very much for posting!

Hi Kristy! You are so welcome! I am making more time to read fiction now, too, even if it's just in the bathroom or on the way to church while my husband drives! :) Totally worth it for those little gems of inspiration we can find in great writing. Glad you stopped by!

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