Saturday, July 4, 2015

Writing Under the Influence

          I know it’s kind of like a magician revealing how his tricks work, but I am about to share with you the deep, dark secret of writers.  I mean ALL writers.  Anyone who has ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard or dreamed up a catchy little ditty in their head.  But you have to promise not to tell anyone because, well, then it wouldn’t be a secret any more, right?  Promise?  Okay, here it is.  Every writer across the ages and throughout the world has written under the influence! 
          Oops, that didn’t come out quite right.  Allow me to clarify.
          I don’t mean that writers are their most brilliant when under the influence of drugs or alcohol or even chocolate (although many writers I know do consider chocolate to be the universal muse summon-er).  I mean every writer writes under the influence of someone whose words s/he has read and admired.  Someone who inspired them with a particularly well turned phrase, or brought them to tears with an emotionally packed passage, or sent their heart racing with a description so vivid and vibrant it’s as if the reader were actually teetering on a cliff overlooking an angry sea.  An aspiring writer will read something so poignant or profound they say to themselves, I want to write like that.
          It happens to all of us. 
Agatha Christie admits that Conan Doyle had an influence on her desire to write mysteries.  She credits The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Le Roux to having sparked the conversation between her and her sister about writing a detective novel.
          As a child, Denise Swanson (creator of the Scumble River Mystery series) attached her affections to the Trixie Beldon character penned by Kathryn Kenny (not a real person, but a pseudonym for a stable of writers at Western Publishing.)   As an adult, Denise turned to Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt for her mystery/romance fix and knew that someday she wanted to write “that kind of book.”
          Janet Evanovich?  I’ll let you guess.  Never mind, you’ll never guess.  She claims the two early influences on her work are Carl Barks (famed cartoonist who created, among others, Scrooge McDuck) and Robert B. Parker. I’m not going to compare Stephanie Plum to Scrooge McDuck, but you can probably see a thread of comedic antics stitched between the two. 
          Every writer has been influenced, whether they admit to it or not.  How do I know this?  Because I believe the universal truth of what 19th century clergyman and speaker, Henry Ward Beecher, had to say on the topic of life’s influences:
“What a mother sings to a cradle goes all the way down to the coffin.”
          Wow.  That’s kind of profound, especially for those of you who may not have had your first cup of coffee this morning.   I like it.  Especially since the only other good quote I could find on inspiration was “Monkey see, monkey do!” (source unknown).   No matter which way you say it, we are all influence by the people around us.  What we’re “sung” to does last us throughout our lives.  Need proof?  Raise your hand if you are afraid of your cradle falling out of the treetops?  See what I mean?
          As I writer I have been influenced by everything I have ever read, from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace to Jill Churchill’s War and Peas.  Out of the thousands of writers I have snuggled under the covers with (and I mean their books, not the actual writer…gessh!), I can identify four who have had a profound influence on my writing. 
          Most female mystery writers of my generation admit to cutting their “detective-writing teeth” reading about the intrepid Girl Detective, Nancy Drew.  I am no exception.  As a card carrying member of the Flashlight Under the Covers club, I never complained about being sent to bed, because I couldn’t wait to snuggle down with The Haunted Bridge or The Bungalow Mystery and allow myself to be whisked away on an exciting adventure.  Nancy got herself into some scary situations, and then she got herself out.  No need of a silly boy to come to her rescue.  I admired her cleverness, fearlessness and adventurous spirit.  A little Nancy Drew can be seen in my own writing as I try to incorporate a slightly scary adventure/all-seems-hopeless scene in every story.
          Who amongst us cozy mystery fans has not curled up with a Cat Who… mystery?  Lillian Jackson Braun wrote about Pickax in Moose County with such realism that I was ready to pack my bags and head off for a vacation, even though I was never real sure where “four hundred miles north of everywhere” was.  Turns out, it only existed in Ms. Braun’s imagination.  I was rather depressed the day I discovered that because I really wanted to see that converted old apple barn for myself.  By combining rich descriptions and folksy characters in an everyone-knows-everyone community, Ms. Braun created the best small town ever.  There is no doubt in my mind I was influenced by her ability to do that and strive in every one of my books to bring that small town coziness to life, too.

         I’ll never forget my first Mary Daheim Bed and Breakfast mystery; A Streetcar Named Expire (gotta give Mary props for her clever titles!)  The amateur sleuth, Judith McGonigle Flynn, was a woman I could relate too.  First, she was the owner of a Hillside Manor B&B (my dream job), second, she was comfortably middle-aged (like myself), and third, she had a crazy cousin, Renie (I had a crazy Aunt Renie—close enough).  It was like Mary was writing about me.  I loved the banter between the two cousins, and I loved that I could solve the mystery right along with them.  In my own cozies, I have middle-aged sleuths who squabble a bit between themselves, and always manage to find the killer before the police.  Hmmm, I wonder where I got that idea…
          Finally, there’s Janet Evanovich, the queen of comedic mystery.  When I finally read her first Stephanie Plum book (and I was kind of late to that party), I literally screamed, “I want to write like this!”  By that point I had already produced the first draft of my own comedic mystery, but reading the gold standard of the genre, I learned there existed some shelf space for this kind of book, and that was exciting, encouraging and empowering beyond words. Janet’s books still influence everything I write.  Now when I feel my work getting a bit to “serious”, I grab a numbered novel, pick a random page, read a few paragraphs, and voila, my funny bone is tickled enough I can weave a bit of humor in my own story. 
          In closing here, I would like to share with you a quote from Euripides:

“Some wisdom you must learn from someone who’s wise.”

          I like that so much I might have to bedazzle that on a t-shirt or something as a tribute to all those of have influenced me, both in writing, and life in general.  And in big pink shimmer-y letters I’ll add my own comment, “Thanks, y’all!” 

1 comment:

Elizabeth Kimball said...

Wonderful post! I love (and own) practically every Mary Stewart mystery. However, I must admit that I preferred Encyclopedia Brown and Judy Bolton to Nancy Drew. ;)