What is the best way to begin a writing project? By reading, of course. Whether a writer pens fiction or sticks with “just the facts,” reading a variety of materials and genres can add depth and breadth to a writer’s work, provide inspiration, and possibly prod the writer to pursue a direction that was never intended or imagined at the outset.
Scratch any accomplished author and you’ll find a person who has a history of inhaling books. Novels, nonfiction books, newspapers and magazines, and today, niche internet sites are all listed on the proficient writer’s “must read” agenda. Novice writers should take direction from these literary role models, but should also realize that not all literary endeavors are created equal.
Much like the corporate spy who engages eyes and ears when scoping out the competition, a writer needs to read samples of published work within his or her particular genre. Aside from the entertainment value, this exercise focuses attention on how stories within a particular genre are structured, what themes tend to recur, and what elements are necessary in order to create the tension and conflict that drive a story toward its climax. Moreover, if the book is a best seller, it behooves the new writer to ask, “What makes this book stand out?” There may not be just one answer, but if an analysis yields one gem that can be incorporated into the writer’s latest project it may be the element that propels that work from mundane to magnificent.
The latest news and current social issues often have provided novelists a backdrop for their work. For example, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy was based on the Leo Frank rape /murder case, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn drew attention to the immorality of slavery and the dysfunction within a family created by alcoholism and abuse, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin drew people to the abolitionist movement and motivated President Abraham Lincoln to proceed with the idea of emancipation.
News events and hotly debated social issues create an immediate sense of tension within a work, and characters living out the “pro” and “con” sides of that issue within the context of a story not only drive the story, but engage the reader’s mind and emotions as they examine the different sides of that issue.
History is both a collection of stories and a panorama of human nature at its best and its worst. History relates how individuals behave within a cultural context, and gives the reader a birds-eye perspective of how events, personalities and environment interact to create a set of outcomes.
A careful examination of history reveals that history really does repeat itself, primarily because human nature hasn’t changed over time. This is a blessing to a writer; using history as a guide can make any story be both timely and timeless.
A recent episode of Dateline NBC presented the testimony of a forensic examiner regarding blood spatter evidence at a crime scene. A Charlie Chan movie from 1932 depicted Chan explaining blood spatter evidence to a group of budding detectives. The dialogue in both instances was nearly the same.
Chan’s creator, Earl Derr Biggers, did extensive research in the areas of evidence gathering and criminal law before he developed and wrote his Charlie Chan stories. He was able to weave fact and reality bytes into the fabric of his fiction, which lent authenticity to the story and to his main character. Fiction and nonfiction authors alike would be well served to read technical and trade publications related to their particular areas of interest.
So if you are struggling with a writing project or find that you just can’t get started, start reading. A glimpse at your topic through another set of eyes can free your inner writer from its paralysis and open the floodgates of creativity.