Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Pick a book, any book

Today, I'm trying a little exercise and I'd love to hear from anyone else who tries it too!

I'm going to pick a book I love, and then try to figure out what it is, exactly, that I love about it - and, as such, try to see if I apply those things to my own work. As I see it, people aren't anomalies; so what one of us loves, many other people are likely to love too. So what better way to become a better writer than to find out what it is about our favourite books we love, and use that in our work?

(Yep, I'm sure there are better ways. But I'm dramatic at heart and so I'm sticking by my claim. Sticking by it, I tell you!)

I've picked Daphne du Maurier's Frenchman's Creek, and I've picked it apart. So what do I love so much about it?

Beautiful writing

Any fellow du Maurier fans will know that her writing is beautiful; but never more so, I think, than in Frenchman's Creek, a story about a discontented woman, a pirate, and a bittersweet love story. (Gosh, I am a sucker for my bittersweet love stories, aren't I?)

I'll admit freely that if it wasn't for the beauty of her writing, I wouldn't enjoy her books half as much. Without the poignant descriptions, the imagery, the flawless rendering of complex, indefinable emotions onto paper, Frenchman's Creek would not be the book it is.

Largely because of this, and the first time I read this novel, I try to make my writing beautiful. I don't have even half of Daphne du Maurier's skill, but I do try and it always makes me feel like my story comes alive about a thousand times more than it would otherwise. When I write in first person, I always make sure to stay in my character's voice, but beautiful writing can take different forms and I try to take care with my words, whether I succeed at achieving what I'd hoped or not.


I don't really need to go into this in detail, because I'm sure most of you will feel the same way. If the characters don't grab me - if they don't feel real, or wonderful, or make me laugh or cry - then I can't quite love a book as much, or even half as much. Frenchman's Creek has a host of brilliant characters, from the hilarious William to headstrong Dona to the complicated and decidedly not stereotypical Frenchman pirate.

I don't think I ever consciously applied this love to my writing, though. For me, characters either come naturally - which means they're worth writing about to me - or they feel stilted and wooden, in which case I can't write about them. Characters are so important to me that, unconsciously, they're the thing I always love most about writing.

Sense of place

Again, all du Maurier fans will know how instrinsic and essential Cornwall is to her novels. She makes it feel like such a living, breathing place: from the moors, to the cliffs, to the sea, to - above all - the houses and homes and spectres of old ghosts and shadows. I never read one of her novels without coming away with a strong sense of place, and Frenchman's Creek is the book that first made me long to see Cornwall (still haven't).

I took a leaf out of her book ages ago and I try, too, to make my places real. I never force it, and I certainly don't try to mimic her style, but I always keep a sense of place in my mind and in the story. Sometimes it comes naturally, and then I let it flow the way it wants to. If I'm struggling and a sense of place is called for, I work harder at it. It always depends on the story.

A relationship that comes at a price, and with sacrifice, and which you find yourself rooting for from the moment you see the characters together

I don't really need to explain this, do I? Except maybe to say that I love fictional relationships with conflict, and drama, but also natural chemistry. I hate relationships that feel forced, or unrealistic, or just plain irritate me because I can't understand how they could possibly work at all. I talk a lot about fictional relationships in my themed week, so I'm going to stop here.

There are other things I've loved and learned from Frenchman's Creek, but these are the most significant of them, the ones that have impacted on my writing the most.

Do you learn from the books and stories you love? Do you do it consciously or is it an unconscious thing that filters into your writing or, for the non-writers out there, into your other passions?

PS. The Character Interview Blogfest is exactly one week away! Do sign up! 


  1. The books I read tend to feed my imagination and vocabulary and love for random facts and information. I think I pick up odd words or phrases from my favourites - if you ever hear me saying anything old fashioned then it's likely to come from either Georgette Heyer or Chalet School books!

  2. Hahaha Alex your comment made me laugh because I always do that too! Every time I read Georgette Heyer, I start speaking like her writing style and I have to restrain myself from calling people "sir" or "madam" when I'm annoyed with them! :)

  3. That's an interesting exercise!

    I think I'm more of a subconscious reader, although I'm becoming more and more aware of what I reading! And it's getting annoying!

  4. Loved your breakdown! I think for me it's a little of both. I always analyze when I read (can't help it), but sometimes I put more effort into it than at other times. If I'm working on something specific in my writing, I like to go to books that do that well and then emulate that in my own writing. But like you said, I don't like to copy. I want to take the principle of what the author does and make it my own.

  5. Lovely post, Sangu! I love to get into my characters' heads and make the reader feel and think what they do. Once upon a time I used to be descriptive with scenery and MC description, but since studying rules and stuff, I've cut a lot of that out of my work cuz no one likes info dumping. *Sigh* I've yet to find a happy medium to show the world I'm writing about. I'll have to pick up her book and read it to see how she does it.

    I can't wait for the character interview blogfest! ;)

  6. Hi Sangu,

    Hee hee, great minds think alike!

    I was about to do a post on having cut my historical romance teeth (when 12 yrs old) on Daphne and Georgette, but, and it's a big but, by 15 (like all wicked teenage girls) I was looking around for more heat from a novel and well . . . See my blog!

    That said, I think when writing historical romance one has to take on the persona of a wo/man fro that time inclusive narration as well as dialogue! Some people agree some don't, and can't get their heads around narrative with historical overtones. How about you?


  7. Great post, Sangu. I think this is exactly what writers have to do from time to time. Especially if we don't know why something isn't working. I've done it many times with my favorite, Tigana. It's amazing what insights I gain into myself, too. For instance, why am I drawn to men with power? That was not something I expected to discover, so what does that say about me? LOL

  8. Very interesting exercise. I'll have to try this.

    Found you over at Ron Empress. :)