Thursday: I am reading two books right now, both thrillers/mysteries. Book One is historical, urban, gritty, and PI. Book Two is contemporary rural, violent, and a police procedural. I have read books by both authors before. Both are set in places the reader can find on a map.
My own work is historical, usually urban, and PI or amateur detective, and for the most part the setting can be found on a map. It is not gritty or particularly violent. I like to think the problems can be solved by thought rather than action.
BUT… I have been long aware that I need something else in my writing. This morning I realized it wasn't the violence of the contemporary, but the grittiness of the historical.
I finished the historical yesterday and hit the contemporary in earnest. When I have finished it, I will try to tease out the difference in tone, and try to replicate it.
It may turn out that I just can't write gritty, but there is something to be learned in trying.
Saturday: Finished Book Two. What is it that makes me more drawn to the first and makes me want to bring some element of it into my own work? It isn’t enough to say “I want to write gritty.” I have to figure out how these two authors got the tone they were looking for.
One difference between them is humor. If there was anything humorous in Book One, it was merely men laughing and drinking in the tavern. Book Two had strangely named characters, OK, secondary characters named Moose and Squirrel, with no mention of Rocky and Bullwinkle. When things were most grim for the protagonist, he had a wry twist at the end of each terrible sentence.
Book One has a protagonist who is essentially a loner. He has a steady woman who takes care of him when he is hurt and feeds him when he isn't. Does he love her? They are more like a married couple, used to each other and caring about each other but not in the first bloom of love.
Book Two moves the protagonist to a place he doesn't know well and sets insurmountable obstacles in his way. Sometimes he over comes, sometimes he doesn’t. But throughout the book he is falling in love with the lady across the street.
Setting? Old Boston at night or the open fields of Pennsylvanian farm land. OK, so Boston is my hometown and a setting I use a lot. But I now live not all that far from the rolling farmland of Book Two, and some pretty horrible things can happen there, too.
Then there are the character's names. Book One is stuck with some real historical people and their names. The author can't change Hutchinson to Grough. But the fictional characters have names that are unfamiliar to most readers and contain hard sounds, or sibilant sounds. Rocks and snakes. Book Two has softer more familiar names, most are names your neighbors might have, names that roll off the tongue rather than being spit or hissed.
I’m not particularly afraid of dying by witchcraft, but I am sacred of modern plant cultivation with its airborne poisons and its genetic engineering. So Book Two should have been scarier than Book One, and in a way it was. More important was attitude of the two protagonists. In the darker book the hero himself is not sure he will succeed in anything he takes on, while the hero of Book Two never doubts himself in spite of the odds. The reader is never sure Ethan in Book One will get out of his predicament, but has no doubt Doyle in Book Two will, even if the reader can't figure out how.
Want to know what the two books are?
Thief's Quarry by DB Jackson is the first, the darker of the two. It is the second book in the Thieftaker series, set in Boston just before the Revolution. This book might be considered an historical PI with a sprinkling of supernatural.
The second is Drift by Jon McGoran. Set in modern Berks County Pennsylvania, it deals with bio engendering. The protagonist is a Philly cop who heads west to attend his parents funeral and finds himself in a mess.
I don't remember what it was like to read for the joy of the book. I have been reading for many years like a writer. I can't stop editing as I go along, or trying to figure out how an author made the reader feel a certain way. Or how hard it was for the author to work out a particular plot twist. I can't stop looking for errors in historicals. I have put many a book down when I come to the first awkward sentence.
But there is always something to be learned.
Homework: I'd love to know from my writer readers what they have learned from their reading, and from my readers who don't write, what their reading has taught them about writers.