All good writers are thieves, or so they say. I’m not talking about plagiarism here; I’m talking about being inspired by the written word and using the source material to help mould our own writing. Generally, good writers will also tell you that they are avid readers. All I can say is that my own writing draws upon inspiration from the masses of reading material I have devoured over the years.
Here are five that have stuck with me – and how they’ve helped me develop my own writing.
The Famous Five Collection - Enid Blyton
Okay, it’s not just one book but twenty-one. My earliest recollection of being bitten by the writing bug was during my Famous Five phase. For me, these books embodied childhood idyll. A tight-knit group of four young adventurers, aided and abetted by the tail-wagging Timmy, replete with the habitual swigging of ‘lashings’ of ginger beer. An intoxicating mix! To the introverted loner I was then (or lone wolf, as I now like to think of it), this was escapism at its finest. Without doubt, these stories ignited my passion for creating characters and writing stories, always trying and failing to emulate Enid Blyton. I still have the full set of books, which I cherish with an irrational sense of nostalgia. I never open them, worried that the style is not the perfection I recall. Some things are best left as fond memories. The lasting impact of these books, however, is the realisation that emotion and writing go hand in hand.
The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
JD Salinger’s classic novel divides opinion – readers either love it or hate it. For me, it’s a book to study rather than enjoy. This is a text I constantly return to for inspiration – but why?
First of all, it’s a masterclass in characterisation. The way Salinger gradually reveals the actions and thought processes of his protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is genius. And no reader is neutral about Holden; he invites either loathing or empathy. He is memorable. And what writer wouldn’t want to create a character that lives on, whether in the heart or the mind? Shakespeare is alleged to have said this: ‘Love me or hate me, both are in my favour: if you love me, I’ll always be in your heart; if you hate me, I’ll always be in your mind’. Whether Shakespeare ever did utter these words or not, they could have been a prescient reference to Salinger’s anti-hero! You get the point, though – creating unforgettable characters is something all writers surely strive to do.
Secondly, this novel is a tale of its time. Through Holden, the reader glimpses all the angst and hypocrisies of early 1950s America. I think we all want to reveal something of our context in our written work. Salinger uses motifs such as Holden’s red hunting hat to represent Communism – I wonder what we would use to symbolise these strange days of the early 2020s?
And as for that opening sentence – if you want to see a great example of how to introduce yourself in the second person, this is the go-to exemplar:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
As I said: genius.
Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
I’ve no doubt Charles Dickens would be underwhelmed to learn that one of his books was still inspiring this particular reader a century and a half after his death. But no one quite tells a story like Dickens. It’s as if he pats a fireside seat next to him, inviting you to sit down and join him for an inevitably lengthy narrative. Dickens is known for his characterisation, of course. But he is also master of the convoluted – yet perfectly controlled – prose style. It’s a style that is much maligned in the modern world, but his mastery of language never fails to inspire. Just read that first page of Great Expectations and marvel at his use of semi-colons in dictating the flow of a ludicrously long sentence.
At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
I haven’t counted the words, but who else could write a sentence of this length with such complete clarity? This is structured beautifully: each snapshot within this panoramic scene is separated into an album, demarcated by a perfectly placed semi-colon, all leading to the introduction of the character at the end. I still marvel at this and have emulated this structure many a time.
An Officer and a Spy - Robert Harris
I read this book during the 2020 lockdown and it refuses to leave me. I’d already enjoyed several Robert Harris books but this, to my mind, is his showpiece. An Officer and a Spy is a fictionalised retelling of the Alfred Dreyfus story. Set in 1890s Paris, it highlights the injustices faced by Dreyfus, who stood wrongfully accused of espionage. I was hooked from the start. Harris tells the story from the point of view of Georges Piquart, the officer who goes from expressing a dislike of Dreyfus to campaigning on his behalf, as a result of bearing witness to repeated miscarriages of justice and corruption. The reader is swept along on this rollercoaster of outrage and hunger for justice.
This novel is influential, simply because it embodies the importance of words in revealing the truth. Although a work of fiction, this book showcases the power of language in illuminating what some would prefer to keep hidden.
Any Human Heart - William Boyd
I’m not alone here; I’m yet to meet someone who doesn’t speak well of this book. In me, it inspires envy that I will never be able to write with such fluid expertise. But that’s also parts of its appeal. This book offers more source material for aspiring writers than any Creative Writing course could ever do.
The diary format is simple but powerful; it allows us to track the lifespan of the narrator, Logan Mountstuart, in a natural and insightful way. Logan is a compelling character because he is fully rounded – he can be endearing but is also flawed. The reader cares about him despite his shortcomings. And author William Boyd – of whom I am a colossal fan – makes it look easy. I never read a Boyd novel without a pen and paper at my side, and often find myself frantically scribbling down page numbers, interesting vocabulary and turns of phrase - and what not. I draw upon these notes with alarming regularity, manipulating them and making them my own.
Most importantly, this book was written with readers in mind. So many writers seem to forget that novels are meant to enjoyed, not a creative indulgence for the author’s own benefit. This book has it all; it’s my number one point of reference. Those of you who’ve read it will know exactly what I mean.
If you haven’t read it yet: do!
It’s safe to say that reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. If you need inspiration, reach for a book. It never fails!
Which books inspired you to write? I’d love to know. Over to you in the Comments section below!
Photo by Amanda Ellison