WHAT DO WRITERS READ?

 

I should have given this piece the title “What This Writer Reads,” because I can’t speak for anyone else, of course, and if there is one thing I have learned in the years since I have been a published writer, it is that all writers are different in almost every imaginable way. But I do believe that all of us must surely have discovered that after writing a number of books, we come to our reading from a different place. Something has been changed. In a sense, something has been spoiled. And I think the reason for this is that we learn to look at our own writing with a constantly critical sense and find it difficult to turn that off when reading other people’s books. I do read more critically than I used to, not because I think myself superior to other writers, but because while I read I sometimes forget I am not them, and I want to change things in their writing that I would change if it were my own!

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I read constantly and voraciously as a child and as a teenager. I still do, in fact. Then I read everything I could get my hands on–Enid Blyton, books and about schoolgirls, and–in my teens–almost all the classics, whether British, American, Russian, or French. It was a great time in my life to read them, when my brain was like a sponge and retained what it absorbed. I can remember most of them in great detail. I loved many of them, disliked a few but felt the fault must be in me, not in the book. I needed to be much older to make the decision (after slogging my way through Moby Dick) that some books, even classics, are not well written and need not be read to the bitter end. I read Graham Greene and Victoria Holt and Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway and P. G Wodehouse and numerous other marvellous contemporary writers.  Thank heaven for libraries–and I say that with all reverence!

I discovered Romance as a genre relatively late in life, though the great love stories of literature (Pride and PrejudiceJane Eyre, etc.) had always been my favorites, especailly if they had happy endings. First it was Georgette Heyer (I can’t understand how she escaped me until I was in my 30s), then Harlequins, and then the little Signet Regency romances and the same sort of Regencies from other publishers. Then I started writing my own romances and almost immediately stopped reading them! Why, you may ask? There were a few reasons.

First, reading romance is too like what I do for hours a day as my job. If you earn your living  by doing something, it is a job even if you enjoy it immensely. When I finish writing romance for the day, I want to spend my leisure time at something different. Another reason is that I did not want to unconsciously plagiarize–and it is so easy to do. You read a book and forget it and then, later, use an incident from it in your own book, thinking the idea is yours. The best thing to do is not to read the kind of both with which this may happen. And a third, and perhaps the main reason is that I find myself most critical as a reader when I read romances, especially historicals like my own. I read them with a mental red pen. It is annoying but unavoidable–most of the time. There are exceptions. I read Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm a short while ago, for example, and was completely swept away by it. And there are others. I can read most contemporaries, like those of Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Pamela Morsi with great enjoyment. But on the whole I read very little romance–which can be a disadvantage when I am asked in interviews, as I often am, which other romance authors I can recommend!

What do I read now, then? I read a great deal of mystery, both the cozy variety of writers like Patricia Wentworth and Agatha Christie and M. C. Beaton, and the more gritty ones of writers like Michael Connelly and Lee Childe. And I love the more literary ones, like those of Ruth Rendell and Louise Penny and Donna Leon. I love funny ones, like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.  And I read anything and everything else that takes my fancy and can hold my attention through the first fifty pages or so. I am a rereader. I have just gradually read my way through all the Georgetter Heyer books again, and Daphne Du Maurier’s  Rebecca is on my Kindle to be read again soon. With most of these books I can relax be simply a voracious reader again–and there is no better thing to be!

proposalbritish4arrangebrit To one person who leaves a comment before the end of next Tuesday, September 3, I will again send signed copies of both THE PROPOSAL and THE ARRANGEMENT. The covers shown above, which I love, are from the British editions. Last week’s winner was Aislinn Kearns from Australia. Thank you for all your comments. Keep them coming. I love reading them.

 

 

WHY DO CHARACTERS HAVE TO HAVE NAMES?

How do you come up with names for your characters? It is a question I am frequently asked. The short answer is: not easily! For one thing, most of my books are set in Regency England  and I have to be sure that any name I choose was in use then or that at least I can justify its use. And there is the problem of the fact that I have written more than 100 novels and novellas, and each of them has a hero and a heroine and a whole host of secondary characters, all of whom need names. First names and surnames. And very often title names as well since, as is customary in Regency historicals, most of the characters are of the upper classes, often the aristocracy. Oh, and most of them live in country homes that have names and in London houses that also have names. Why do characters and their properties have to have names?

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Sometimes the flow of my writing is halted while I sit for five or ten minutes just thinking up a name for a minor character–and drinking my coffee. And occasionally I dream up names like Leonard Bruce and Peter Jennings (both of them in the book I have just finished writing) because I don’t watch much television or know many other celebrities. My editor kindly pointed out the problem this time, and those two minor characters are now Leonard Burton and Peter Jenkins. Of course, I do have a family called Huxtable in one series with one daughter named Vanessa! No one whispered “Bill Cosby” in my ear until after First Comes Marriage was published.

In recent years, in North America anyway, new parents often go out of their way to give the new child an unusual, distinctive name. Any combination of letters is acceptable provided, I suppose, there is at least one vowel or vowel equivalent thrown in. Not so in Regency England! It does seem that a very large number of men were George or Charles or Robert or John or one of a few other staples, while women tended to be Charlotte or Jane or Louisa or Elizabeth. It’s not easy to come up with a different and acceptable name for more than 100 heroes and heroines. It’s impossible, in fact. I have repeated several names. I have repeated them many times for secondary characters.

It is, however, possible to use more unusual names provided the name can be justified in its historic context. The Bedwyns, for example, do not have conventional names–Aidan, Rannulf, Freyja, Alleyne, Morgan, Wilfric. I invented for them a mother who loved to read Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature and chose names for her children accordingly. The old duke must have been quite accommodating on the naming of his children. Names of Latin and Greek origin are acceptable because all gentlemen and many ladies had a classical education. I have a Constantine and a Marcus and a Cassandra. Sometimes I come across an unusual name that actually belonged to someone living in the era–Sydnam, for example. Another consideration when choosing names is making them suit the character. I have occasionally had all sorts of difficulty bringing a hero or heroine to life on the page until I realized that he/she had the wrong name! I have heard other writers say the same thing.

I must admit I am a bit careless in my choice of title names. I draw them out of the air. Someone asked me a while ago if I choose them by looking at a list of British titles that were in abeyance and therefore fair game for my use.. I felt a bit like a deer caught in the headlights. Ought I to have been doing it that way? I have made a blooper at least once. Mary Gregg, heroine of The Notorious Rake, is the widowed Lady Mornington. Mornington was the title name of the Duke of Wellington’s brother. I would have avoided it if I had remembered in time.

One thing I wish I had done from the start of my career (new writers, take note!) is to make an index of all the names I have used–first names, surnames, title names, property names and in which book they appeared. It would be a gargantuan task now but would help out a great deal in preventing unintentional duplications. Readers occasionally ask me if a certain character is related to another character of the same name in another book. Often the answer is no–I had simply forgotten that I had used the name before. Being prolific has its problems!

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To someone who leaves a comment before the end of next Tuesday, August 27, I will send signed copies of both THE PROPOSAL and THE ARRANGEMENT in honor of the fact that the latter is to be published that day. Last week’s winner was Joyce Medley.

 

SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED–AND FORGOTTEN?

Someone asked a few interesting questions on my Facebook page earlier today. After a book is written and delivered and produced and published, she asked, do I think much about it afterward? Do I remember it? If someone were to give a summary of a book from the 1980s or ’90s without saying it was one of mine, would I recognize it? They were questions that got me thinking.

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A Masked Deception, my first book, was written in 1983. Ouch! That is a long time ago. Have I thought about it much since then? Not really. Have I reread it? No. Would I recognize a summary of it? Oh, yes. That book is a part of me just as all my other books are–and just as all the experiences of my life are. There is a whole lot about the younger years of my children, for example, that I never think of and have “forgotten” to all intents and purposes, but if someone were to describe an incident, I would know immediately that it happened to my children and not anyone else’s.

It’s a bit strange, perhaps, that I do not reread my books once they are published. I am certainly a re-reader. I love reading books that have enthralled me a number of times before even if I remember them in great detail. In the case of my own books, though, I probably read them a hundred times or more while writing them. Once they are finished, I am done, and I am on to the next book and the next set of characters and the next love story to be worked out. Even so, I enjoy being reminded by readers of favorite characters or quotes or scenes from my books.

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Someone recently mentioned the scene close to the beginning of Slightly Dangerous in which Christine , leaning over a balcony rail to catch a glimpse of the dread Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle, inadvertently drips lemonade down into his eye. And I remembered that that scene was actually written after the rest of the book when my editor suggested that Wulfric and Christine have their first “meeting” rather earlier in the book that I had put it. And then someone remembered Christine snatching away Wulfric’s quizzing glass in exasperation one day and tossing it up into a tree. The very dignified duke has to climb up to retrieve it. I enjoyed reminiscing, just as I might enjoy (well, sort of) being reminded of my elder daughter at a very young age cutting off the central couple of inches of her lovely bangs right up to the hairline.

I do reread my books, by the way, when they are republished. I have to read through the proofs to make sure there are no errors (the typo gremlins always creep in anyway, of course, but both the publisher and I do our best to keep them out!). It’s a funny feeling reading something I wrote long ago. It’s a bit like looking at an old video of yourself. Sometimes I am relieved to find that the book is still something I would be proud to write and turn in now. A few times, however, I have been a bit uncomfortable. The Web trilogy, for example, (The Gilded Web, Web of Love, The Devil’s Web) were a little too heavy on long, introspective paragraphs for my current tastes. I try now to include more dialogue in my books and to have a bit less interior monologue. But some change is inevitable in any writer who has been at it for thirty years. After all, everything else about me has changed!

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To someone who leaves a comment (perhaps in the form of a favorite character or scene or quote from one of my books?) before the end of next Tuesday, August 21, I will send my last remaining advance reading copy of THE ARRANGEMENT. I know I said that a couple of weeks or so ago, but the copy I thought was spoken then actually for wasn’t! There will still be time for me to send it to one of you before the book goes on sale on August 27. Last week’s winner was Kathy Taylor.

 

JACK IN THE GLORY

 “Shall I tell you the story of Jack in the glory?”

“Yes.”

“Shall I begin it?”

“Yes.”

“That’s all that’s in it.”

That utterly silly sequence of questions was a common joke among children when I was little, and there would always be some poor soul who would fall for it and be left bitterly disappointed while the narrator cackled with glee.

My sister asked me the first two questions one night. We must have been very young–we still shared a room and even a bed. She did not end the sequence in the usual way, however. She told the story of Jack in the Glory, making it up as she went, and it went on night by night in serial form. She would always stop at a point of cliffhanging suspense or when our mother called up from downstairs promising dire consequences if we did not stop talking and go to sleep. The dire consequence was usually an hour of Saturday morning spent sitting on hard kitchen chairs without books or any other form of entertainment, including conversation. It was cruel and unusual, let me tell you!

I can’t remember if my determination to be a writer came before those nightly stories or not, but I do know that at a very early age I was telling anyone who asked that when I grew up I was going to be an authoress. And it was not a mere pipe dream. Both my sister and I used to fill notebooks with our stories (oh, that I had kept some of them!), all of them full of wild, happily and triumphantly resolved adventures involving children. It’s no wonder I ended up writing romance. I remember as a ten-year-old being assigned a story in school that had to begin with the sentence, “Rat-a-tat went the postman on the door.” And off went Mary’s imagination on a wild ride. While everyone else in the class finished their stories within the half hour, I had to be given extensions for the next week to finish my 25-page story (and, oh, would that I had kept THAT!). My teacher and headmistress entered it in a competition, and I won a box full of Cadbury’s chocolate bars. This was during the post-WWII years when rationing had only just stopped and luxury goods were scarce even when one could afford them. I couldn’t have been more excited if that box had contained gold bars.

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When I grew up, of course, it was to the sad discovery that I needed to eat (more than chocolate bars) and so I became an English teacher and moved to Canada from Wales. And then, inevitably, I fell in love and married and had three children. Life was full and busy. The dream seemed dead. Two things revived it, in addition to the fact that my children grew beyond the demands of early infancy:

(1) I pulled a Harlequin romance (Anne Mather’s  No Gentle Possession) out of a Corn Flakes box, almost threw it away, and read it instead. I was enchanted. At the same time, I thought it looked easy to write and so dashed off two books of my own and sent them off to Harlequin with the idea of becoming instantly rich. Ha! Both books, quite deservedly, were rejected with the curtest of rejection letters. And no, I don’t still have either book, and no, I don’t wish I did.

(2) I discovered the Regency and Georgian romances of Georgette Heyer rather late in life, fell irrevocably in love with them and the world she created, and knew that THIS was what I must write for myself, creating my own world about the same historical period.

And this is my Jack-in-the-Glory story. I know every writer has a totally different one. Some writers do not know that is what they want to do until they sit down to produce their first book. Others, like me, were born to write, though their path to actually doing it was very different from mine. We are all different–thank goodness. Life would be dreary without variety.

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To one person who leaves a comment before the end of next Tuesday, August 13,   I will send a CD audio copy of either FIRST COMES MARRIAGE or THEN COMES SEDUCTION, or AT LAST COMES LOVE. Last week’s winner was Melissa Tarun. Congratulations to her, and thank you to all of you who left such interesting comments.