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July 15, 2014

Favorite Stories: Reading vs. Writing

Statue of a mother reading to a child with text: Does Your Writing Reflect Your Childhood Favorites?

This past weekend, my family watched an old ’70s movie inspired by one of my favorite childhood books, Escape to Witch Mountain. The movie is only slightly related to the book (two orphans with magical powers have to evade bad guys and find the rest of their people), but we enjoyed the cheesy special effects anyway. After the movie, I dug through my collection of childhood favorites, and sure enough, I still had my copy of the book.

That trip down memory lane got me thinking about the other books I loved when I was a kid. I still have—yes, I kept these too—several books by Ruth Chew, including The Magic CaveSummer Magic, and The Trouble with Magic. Each of those books are about two kids who encounter magic of one sort or another. Hmm…

While I haven’t reread any of those books since I was a kid, I’ve reread one of my other favorites several times over the years. Unlike the others, which were buried, The Chronicles of Narnia lives on my keeper shelf next to my desk (in the original publication order of course).

Notice a trend? Taken as a whole, all of those books involve magic and make a case for my favorite genre as a child being fantasy, specifically contemporary fantasy, where at least part of the story takes place in this world.

So maybe it’s no surprise that as an adult I write paranormal romance (contemporary fantasy in “a kissing book” *grin*). Exchange a sexy hero and a strong heroine for the brother/sister teams of those childhood books, and there are yet more similarities.

Do Our Childhood Reading Preferences Still Affect Us?

That realization this past weekend made me wonder if I was alone with how my childhood preferences carried forward to my adult reading habits. Just like back then, I read more broadly than a single genre, but my favorites tend to cluster around stories with certain elements.

As a child, I loved magical/fantasy stories for their sense of awe and wonder and limitless possibilities. I read classic science fiction for the mind-expanding commentary on what makes us human and on understanding our potential. I enjoyed general fiction for the exploration of relationships between characters.

All of those preferences—awe and limitless possibilities, social commentary, revealing humanity’s potential, and searching for life’s meaning through relationships—still hold true for me today. The stories and genres I read now have grown up and matured, but the aspects that resonate with me haven’t changed.

Or Do Our Reading Preferences Change Along with Us?

I’ve mentioned before that our worldview might not change over our lifetime, and for some of us, maybe this story-type preference is a similar situation. But for others, our reading habits might change along with our evolving personalities.

Those of us who become more cynical in the face of adulthood might find different story elements resonate with us now. Ditto for those scarred by betrayals, grief, or life’s struggles. Still others might see more happiness in life as we age out of the awkwardness and angst of our younger years.

Maybe my preferences have remained the same only because I’m now old enough to have emerged from my cynical phase and circled back to my inherent Pollyanna optimism. As C.S. Lewis wrote to his Goddaughter Lucy Barfield in the dedication of Narnia’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

Click image for full quote(Like this quote? )

Do Those Childhood Preferences Affect Our Writing?

I would never claim that either situation—our preferences staying the same or changing—was “right” or “wrong.” As I mentioned, I believe my preferences have changed over the years.

In my case, discovering the joy of writing helped me circle back to where I started. And this brings up the “part B” of my realization: What I loved reading as a child shares similarities with what I love writing now.

Those elements of “limitless possibilities, social commentary, revealing humanity’s potential, and searching for life’s meaning through relationships” fill my paranormal romance stories. Like most authors, my writing encompasses aspects of everything I’ve experienced. But I still found it interesting to see threads of influences in my writing all the way back to my single-digit years.

Know Ourselves; Know Our Writing

As authors, we tend to question ourselves about everything, all the time. Some of us even question whether we’re writing the “right” genre. Would X genre be better? Or maybe Y? Others of us question our voice, the point of view we use, the mood or tone of our stories, etc.

Maybe looking back at our childhood and seeing those early influences will help us understand why we might be pulled in one direction or another with our writing. Or maybe seeing how our preferences have changed over the years will help us accept that we don’t have to write what we used to read.

Just as understanding our worldview
might help us recognize our themes
,
understanding our reading habits over the years
might help us recognize our influences and preferences.

My understanding of my “love is powerful” worldview showed me why I’m drawn to writing romance stories. And now this understanding of my life-long preference for fantastical stories showed me why everything I write includes something paranormal, fantasy, or science fiction-esque.

Some industry insiders (agents and editors) have stated that paranormal romance is “dead” (they think it’s an over-saturated market), and this attitude has caused me to question my choices for the last several months. However, this new understanding of why I write what I do brought me peace:

I have to write what resonates within me. I can’t change genres without losing a piece of myself.

Not everyone will agree with that attitude. Some don’t mind chasing the market. Some want (or need) to prioritize income. Those aren’t “bad” or “wrong” choices.

Either way, we want to make the right decisions for us. And the best way we can do that is by gaining an understanding of ourselves, our influences, our preferences—and our writing. *smile*

What types of stories did you love as a child? Have the elements that appeal to you changed over your lifetime, and if so, in what way have they changed? If they’ve changed, why do you think that happened? How have your reading preferences influenced your writing? Can you still see some of your childhood loves in your work?

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31 Comments on "Favorite Stories: Reading vs. Writing"

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Carradee
I was quite sheltered as a child. Even though I was reading it, nobody bothered to point out that historical fiction existed, so I was 10 before I realized it was distinct from the non-fiction I was also reading. (That was actually pretty confusing to experience.) Some of that sheltering came from my mother, though considers spec fic “childish escapism” by definition. She also had some kinda inconsistent ideas about what was and wasn’t appropriate for a child to be aware of, which also produced much confusion until I started discovering these things called “CD Encyclopedias” and such and managed to at least fill in some of the gaps. For instance, the extent of “the talk” with my parents was: “You’ve been spending a lot of time in that interactive biology CD. You probably know all about where babies come from already, huh?” I didn’t. I knew enough to get why there had to be a male and a female, but…I’m asexual. It was all curiosity, no real urge to learn about that more than, say, how the digestive system worked. Over the ensuing years, I learned all sorts of details on my own, often from reading or overhearing something that left me puzzled. Fortunately, I’m good about picking things up from context. All that to say… I was in my teens before I even discovered some of my favorite genre(s) existed, beyond an occasional stumbling upon a book I really liked. But having been a voracious reader as a… Read more »
Sharon Hughson
Jami- I read all the same books that you mentioned reading as a kid. I knew they would affect my writing, as well as my reading. I’ve moved through different stages in my reading. When my kids were pre-readers, I read mostly inspirational romance and mystery. When they were old enough, I broke out the books I loved (Chronicles of Narnia among them) and began reading them aloud with my sons. In this way, I encouraged a love for fantasy in both of them. Once they were independent readers, I read every book they read. I had a two-fold purpose: make sure it was suitable and have a starting point for meaningful dialogue. I’m a geek. I can talk until I’m hoarse about books, plots, character arcs, themes and all that goes along with making a book engaging or unbelievable. I began writing mystery stories involving horses (in 4th grade). I moved to romances involving girls struggling with cliques and self-confidence through middle school. I didn’t try to write anything with magic until I was an adult. My first attempt read more like sci-fi than fantasy (and I can’t handle hardcore sci-fi, so this surprised me). Once I began working for the school teaching reading to struggling readers, I once again dove into MG and YA books of every genre. I still enjoyed girls friendship stories, stories starring animals and mysteries, but not horror. Unsurprisingly, most of my preferences involved fantasy. After all, my sons read all of Harry Potter… Read more »
Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Aw, that letter C.S. Lewis wrote to his granddaughter is so sweet! ^^ Hmm, as a child, I read mostly fantasy, action/ adventure, comedy, and animal stories. 😀 Though I still love animals, they aren’t a prominent feature in the stories I read or write anymore. As for comedy, there was a phase in my life where I lost interest in comedy and lighthearted stuff, but now that I’ve grown older, I’ve gotten into comedy again! It seems that when I was in middle to high school, I preferred writing darker, sadder, or just more serious stories, but now ever since somewhere in university, I turned to writing more lighthearted and funny, or simply very happy stories again! ^^ Similarly, I used to prefer slower and sadder music, but now that I’m older, I like faster and happier music! Haha. I think this transition mostly comes from that I used to have next to zero friends, but now I have many good friends and some great close and best friends too! My fantasy side has always stayed with me, haha, since apart from literary classics, it’s the category that I’ve read most of, and often my stories have fantasy or sci-fi in them. It seems like I have never lost interest in the action /adventure genre either, since the vast majority of my novels have adventure and often action in them. Romance could be seen as a new development. As a kid, I guess I sort of liked romance, but… Read more »
Sharla Rae

Love this blog and you bring up good questions.

I grew up listening to both of my grandmothers tell me about when they were teachers in 1-room school houses, how many of the immigrant kids didn’t even speak English and how they rode a horses to the class rooms every morning. For a while they took turns staying with different families because some communities could not afford to provide housing for the teachers and the pay was too low for the teacher to rent a place.

These dear stories fascinated me. I was too young to think about recording any of them but sure wish I had. Also when I was really young our heroes were cowboys on TV. My mom wasn’t so sure about allowing me to watch “Have Gun Will Travel” but I did. She didn’t mind Sky King on Sat. morning. He was a pilot who wore a cowboy hat, btw. So it’s no wonder I started out writing historicals. I still write them but I have to say when Star Trek came along I was truly on board with the idea of space travel too! Now for the first time ever, I’m embarking on my 1st journey of writing a Futuristic.

So, while I’ve stuck with the love of history, I’ve grown into the love of space travel. In a way they are alike. One involves pioneers on Earth and the other is sort of pioneers of outer space and other planets.

Julie Musil

Funny because as a kid, I didn’t read the usual kid/teen books. I read romance novels and political thrillers. Weird, right? And my favorite books always had a thoughtful, inspirational angle. And that’s what I write. Contemporary, gritty stories with romance and inspiration. It just sort of happened that way!

Anne R. Allen

I still have my Narnia books, too. First editions my dad ordered from England before they came out in the US. I adored fantasy books of any kind. (As long as there weren’t too many battles.) But I also read Nancy Drew as a guilty pleasure–I borrowed them from friends and never owned any. (My parents were academics and didn’t approve of factory-written pulp fiction.)

But here I am writing mystery novels, so I guess Nancy Drew affected me more than I realized….

Lucy Lit

I chuckled when I read your post because I’ve had an identity crisis recently. While I devoured Nancy Drew as a child, our ‘divorce’ happened when I discovered my mother’s romance stash at age 12. The new love in my life with a few side flings of other genres on occasion! Fast forward multiple decades and I’m writing my first novel. Thought it was an erotic romance (it is) but my editor says “modern Agatha Christie with sex”. Romance and Nancy Drew came full circle. Go figure. And my parents are so proud!

Nina

I am ‘hoist by my own petard’. I loved or was intrigued by EVERY genre except murder mysteries, biographies, and probably something else, but I can’t think of it.
I love the fashion world, futuristic, history as well as romance historicals, sci-fi, westerns, old cliffhangers, Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs-Mars and Venus series too, cookbooks and survival manuals. While we’re at it, let’s not forget old black and white movies watched from my bed in the wash room where and old black and white was on a shelf over the washer. I spent many a night in the summer time watching old movies during my murky youth. I’m effectively screwed to put it bluntly, because my writing tends to reflect these genres. When I first put pen to paper, I wrote a futuristic survival romance. It has followers, but very hard to market things like that.

Elle Lee Love
Elle Lee Love

Hi Jami,
I’m a newbie writer working on my first novel. I love your blog!
Escape to Witch Mountain was one of my favorite movies as a child. I enjoyed watching the children outsmart the bad guys with their magic. I am currently reading paranormal romance novels with brother and sister aliens as the main characters. I don’t think it will ever be possible to have too many paranormal romance novels!

saralitchfield

I loved Escape to Witch Mountain! And I really cannot wait to read your books. I know the feeling – I’m releasing a dystopian and don’t need to be told how saturated or over it is – but that’s what was in me to come out first because of all sorts of things, including my childhood reading habits and my school / university studies!

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[…] Jami Gold is many wonderful things and one of the most wonderful is a fantastic teacher. She doesn’t just write about craft – she is incredibly generous with her time, resources and expertise and actively helps you become a better writer. Jami’s posts also ask brilliant questions, like this one – Do our favourite stories read as children affect our writing as adults? […]

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)
I’m so glad you blogged on this topic, Jami! Sometimes as writers we forget that we’re readers, too, by which I mean that we can beat ourselves up when we don’t like something we read, this is especially common in children’s/YA authors where the common self-talk is “I’m not a kid or teen, so my feelings are irrelevant.” I think that’s FAR MORE DAMAGING to a writer’s sense of self than some random flaming review (Not that they don’t hurt either-even if we pretend they don’t…), IMHO. Yes, writers need to be mindful of who their readers are, but that doesn’t mean our tastes are that far removed from our reader’s, and for those of us debut authors who don’t have a backlist/reliable readership yet, we have to feel this out as we go. It is possible to not like (or LOVE) a book, even if it’s blatantly aimed at you, I wasn’t keen on the “Artemis Fowl” series (back when I was in the target age group) but I don’t blame the author, it just didn’t appeal to me at that time in my life, clearly many more (in and out of the target market) adore it. By contrast, I LOVE the Geronimo Stilton books (despite my personal hang-ups with Packaged books vs. books written by a single author: http://talkinganimaladdicts.com/work-for-hire), and they’re clearly not aimed at temperamental twentysomethings like me, and even if I weren’t an author I’d still read them. Part of the reason I wanted to be… Read more »
Glynis Jolly

I’m pretty sure that what I read as a kid has affected me and my writing. The stories I liked back then were about real-life problems and how they were solved. I was all for a book of mystery. I’m the same way today. I still read mysteries and books about peoples’ lives. In one way these two types are very different. The mystery is fast pace while to story about a person’s life can be leisurely. Yet, I love reading both. As for how I write — I gravitate to the stories about peoples’ lives right now, although I eventually want to try writing a mystery. I’m a realist, which may actually hinder my creative juices for something like sci-fi or fantasy.

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