I think of writers as readers first. This is the story of a writer’s journey. A long journey, since I’ve been reading on my own since I was four and published my first novel on my seventieth birthday. Maybe my progression will inspire some of you to try your hand at writing too, or at least to look at your own reading in a different way.
One day, when I was in my early thirties, I asked my Mom why she stopped reading to me. Was it because my younger brother had just been born? Did she not have time? Was it too much of chore? Surprised, she told me that she stopped when I started reading on my own. And I’ve never stopped.
Writing came later. I wasn’t precocious, writing stories as a small child or anything like that. I started writing poetry, but that from typical teenaged angst and I stopped after a few years. I keep diaries for a long time. I did journaling. At various points I belonged to writing groups and wrote short pieces.
With friends who managed to get successfully published, I wanted to do the same. Unfortunately, I never managed more than a chapter or two of any book I tried to write. A writer friend told me once that there are writers and there are those who want to have written. For a long time I was one of the latter. Eventually I did manage to get published—as a historian. For a while, that seemed success enough, but the desire to write fiction never really went away.
From the first, mystery was the genre that attracted me the most although I read widely. I can point to many writers who have influenced me over the years, but the two writers who have had the biggest effect are Jane Austen and Agatha Christie. Sorry if that sounds predictable, trite, and maybe even shallow. But their ascendancy has been wide-reaching and longstanding. While I may have been reading Dr. Seuss when I was six, I’ve never been compelled to write children’s books.
Christie came into my life first and the impact was like like a cyclone carrying me to another world. My first encounter was Murder at Hazelmoor, first published in 1931. The year was 1961 and we were visiting the new vacation home on Castle Rock Lake of our across-the-street neighbors. Adams and Friendship were the conjoined town and village nearby. My friend, Mimi, and I got a ride into town to check out the few stores and have a snack at a local cafe.
The revolving book display at the drugstore drew me over like iron filings to a magnet—paperbacks that probably cost thirty-five to fifty cents apiece. Even then I was a voracious reader and already choosing books above my age level. The cover, a house in a snow-covered setting, called out to me.
I loved the puzzle, the setting, the characters, everything. What made the experience even more enjoyable was the fact that I figured out the murderer before the reveal so I was cleverer than Miss Emily Trefusis, the young female amateur sleuth, trying to clear her fiancé of murder. A perfect victory for a ten-year-old reader. As it turned out, figuring out the murderer is a talent I have, not a failure of the Queen of Crime.
One result was an immediate obsession with “Golden Age” and particularly British mysteries—Dorothy Sayers, Michael Innes, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, and many more. When I turned to American authors, Ellery Queen, S.S. Van Dyne, and Richard and Frances Lockridge were on my list. Later Amanda Cross, Sara Paretsky, and others joined the throng. Reading mysteries led to a desire to write mysteries. For many years I tried and failed at that ambition. Interestingly, when I tried writing an academic mystery in the 1980s, my idea for a murder weapon harkened back to Murder at Hazelmoor. My killer used a sock filled with sand. In Christie’s novel, the weapon is a green baize tube full of sand. Maybe now that I seem to be more successful in constructing mysteries, I can revive the idea of that academic mystery novel.
My introduction to Jane Austen came later, and the effect was not a tsunami. more a slowly growing appreciation. My first encounter, predictably Pride and Prejudice, was when we were assigned the book in my Advanced Placement English class. Unfortunately it was overshadowed by Hardy’s Return of the Native, memorizing the opening fourteen lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, several Shakespeare plays, and the truly horrible nineteenth-century historical novel, The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade. Looking at Reade’s book on Amazon, I am amazed at the four- and five-star reviews. Any merits were wasted on this seventeen-year-old high school student. I have since discovered it was a favorite of Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Wolfe, Rudyard Kipling, and Oscar Wilde. So disheartening. On the other hand, Doyle also said,
the imperfections, the irritating and superficial tricks of manner, are so obtrusive that they catch the eye… His style can be abrupt, jerky, and incoherent to an exasperating extent …
George Orwell’s opinion, “it is unusual to meet anyone who has voluntarily read him,” reinforces my callow judgement.
But I digress. In college, I was again assigned to read Pride and Prejudice. This time, I enjoyed the book enough to read the rest of her oeuvre. Over time, I have come to appreciate Persuasion the most. In fact, I just finished writing a short story based on Austen’s premise, Aegean Persuasion, that should be out in an anthology next year.
I believe that writers need to be readers. And the reading journey led me into new territory that eventually fed my writing. Last August, I finally managed to publish my first murder mystery, Dead in the Alley. After several novels of romantic suspense, being able to put together the clues and plot twists to create a satisfying mystery plot felt like winning a medal.
At the moment I’m writing the first in a cozy mystery series. The concept is Jane Austen meets Agatha Christie in a contemporary English village. The mystery takes place in Hampshire, England—Jane Austen country. The setting is a cooking contest. My characters are influenced mostly by Austen, although I do have a Miss Marple-like side character, Lady Agatha Carstairs, who is the star of Aegean Persuasion. I hope, probably in vain, that the plot will be as twisty as one of Christie’s.
Decades after Christie and Austen became major influences in my reading and thinking, everything is coming to fruition in my writing. I am grateful to both authors, and the many others I have read over the years, for the desire to write and the inspiration for the stories I have to tell.