Hey there, it is with great pleasure that I introduce myself as WWK’s newest regular blogger. I write detective procedurals with a heavy thriller element, that is, when I’m not stuffing my face as a food writer/columnist/blogger. I’d pass out homemade cookies if it were virtually possible (Think, scientists, THINK. I’ll give you cookies, too, if you can make this happen.), so instead I’ll just say I’m super excited to join this esteemed gang and hope that I fit in.
Now that I have you lovely readers wanting cookies (sorry), let’s discuss something I think is super important in creating better mysteries: Reading beyond your comfort zone.
We all know that it is exceptionally important to read as a writer. Reading helps you hone your craft in numerous ways by giving you a chance to look critically at someone else’s plot structure, red herrings, characterization, blocking (particularly in those big climaxes!), arcs, foils, pacing, tone and just plain style. Plus, you get to have fun getting lost in someone else’s world for a while. Which is probably why most of us were drawn to reading and then writing in the first place, correct?
And it’s worth being said that it’s extremely important to read widely in your genre if you hope to have a career in writing. You have to know what’s out there, what’s been done, what’s been overdone, what hasn’t been explored and what the anatomy of a bestseller in your category looks like. Yes, this is very, very important and should not be overlooked no matter your publishing path or career goals.
However, what I want to talk about today is learning from categories different from your own.
If you have limited reading time — and believe me, I’m a mom, I understand — this might seem like a waste of time. You need to read the books you’re categorized with, or will be one day, if published, right? Right. But, I’m going to tell you that over the past two years I think my writing took an amazing leap because I did something very unlike me: I started reading young adult fiction.
You have to understand, that it took much arm-twisting from my husband and friends to get me to read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series back in the day. I was like, “Why on earth would I want to read KIDS books?” But then I did, and I LOVED them. And I plan to reread them all in one fell swoop when my life hits pause.
After I’d finished book seven of the Harry Potter series, I figured I was pretty much done with YA fiction. I mean, I’d read the best of the best, why read anything else?
A few years went along and I kept reading mysteries and thrillers because those are the books of my heart. But then a funny thing happened. I stumbled upon another YA series that everyone was babbling about. Read the description and decided, “Well, let’s see what all the fuss is about...” and promptly devoured all three books in a week. Thus came about me yammering on to anyone who would listen how awesome The Hunger Games series was.
Even though it was for kids.
Of course, I went back to reading my mysteries, but my two run-ins with famous YA series had me wondering, “Should I read more?” Because here’s the thing: I’d learned from them.
Harry Potter teaches about world-building and love and evil more than any other set of books probably in the history of mankind. Suzanne Collins does a bang-up job in The Hunger Games of setting guidelines for strong female characters and has created basically a “how to” guide on the proper way to write a love triangle. Yes, even though they’re “for kids.”
So, I started paying attention when other writers around me were talking about other books “for kids” that seemed like something I could not only learn from, but enjoy.
Thus, I picked up Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and learned how amazingly satisfying it can be to write about friendship love, not just romantic love. You want and hope many things for the two main characters, but it’s fairly obvious that someone isn’t getting out of the situation they’re in (Nazi-occupied France) alive. Plus: This dual-perspective narration is pretty much a work of genius. Like Gone Girl-type genius.
And finally, after reading about it in an end-of-year “best” list, I bought John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. And I knew from the opening pages that my heart was going to be ripped out, but I couldn’t stop reading. It’s not the same as when you know in a mystery that someone you love is going to die. It was completely different. Instead, I was reading about two teens who meet at a cancer support group. They fall in love. You can see the train wrecking from five miles out, but you can’t stop watching. Green does a magnificent job of taking you through the flash-bang of love at first sight, while not losing steam in motoring full-tilt toward your heart with a machete.
When I’d collected all the pieces of my sliced and diced heart after reading Code Name Verity and The Fault in Our Stars back-to-back (I’m a total glutton for punishment), I sat down and thought about what I’d learned.
Namely, so much that it’s impossible to put a finger on all of it.
But here’s my feeble attempt at describing it: Mystery writers write about life gone wrong, and there’s nothing we can’t glean from other books that explore the very same elements, even if they aren’t technically mystery.
Thus, I’ve made a vow to read more books outside my genre/category/comfort zone. Not just YA, but everything. Recently, I’ve read a few romantic suspense novels, New Adult books with college settings, sweeping historical fiction, and even some magical realism/women’s fiction. And as I work on this latest manuscript, I can feel all those little lessons seeping in, making my writing better.
In closing: Do you read outside your comfort zone? And how does it affect your writing when you do?
Sarah Henning is a food writer and former copy editor who has worked for The Palm Beach Post, The Kansas City Star and The Associated Press, among others. When she's not hunkered down over her computer, she's probably running ultramarathons, chasing her preschooler or pestering her husband to eat more kale. Sarah is repped by Rachel Ekstrom of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. Follow her on Twitter at @shhenning and/or visit www.sarahhenning.me.