Here’s a Novel Idea: Read a Book

By Gayle Bartos-Pool

The first person whoever wrote a book didn’t have libraries and bookstores full of previously penned tomes to read and enjoy and from which to get inspiration to perhaps write their own story. They had a story to tell and wrote it. We, centuries later, don’t have any excuses. We not only have books, but plays, movies, and television shows overflowing with plots, characters, scenery, and dialogue to stir our imagination. Not that writers can’t get ideas from life around them, but sometimes actually reading something from another writer lets us know it can be done. Even a lousy book can inspire a would-be writer to say: “Hey. I can do better than that.” And they do just that every day. But first we have to pick up a book.

You might have friends or family members who recommend a particular favorite. You can always go to a bookstore, if there are any left, and ask the bookseller to point out a few books in a particular genre. Long ago I worked at a Waldonbooks in the Glendale Galleria in California. People were always asking where a particular section was. Mysteries, romance, kid’s books, self-help, religion. At times I would point out a favorite of mine. The store would set out best-selling books on tables in the front of the store complete with advertising paraphernalia from the publisher. We didn’t have to do that with the romance novels. They sold like hotcakes and we would sell down to the wall by month’s end. Unfortunately, the book chain decided they didn’t want to carry lots of books in all kinds of genres, only the top selling books. Obviously they didn’t know avid readers liked to pick out a ton of books of their choosing, old titles, newer ones, or try something different. Oh well. Management must have been more interested in their bottom line than their customers. I love capitalism, but I also love books.

But what can a writer or would-be writer do to get inspiration? They need to ask the one person who will have the most influence on their work what they prefer reading? And who is this veritable font of information? Themselves. Writers usually write what they like to read. But they need to read other writers in their chosen genre to see what’s out there. This means the good, the bad, and the: “Oh, God! That’s the best thing I ever read.” kind of book.

Now I might have loved mystery books and mystery shows on TV, but the first book I wrote, though it took a while to get published, was a disaster novel, CAVERNS. Then I spent ten years writing a spy trilogy, but that wasn’t finding a publisher, either. Then my wonderful husband, Richard, said these immortal words: “You used to be a private detective. Why don’t you write a mystery novel?” Ah!

But what did I know about writing a mystery? My spy novels were based on History and a bit about my dad’s life in the Air Force. I added a ton of facts and made up the rest. But a mystery. I needed to know more about the genre since mystery writing wasn’t like a stand-alone novel where the writer defined the parameters. What did I do? First, I joined Sisters-in-Crime in Los Angeles and Mystery Writers of America so I could hear what other mystery writers did. Those two groups had many famous speakers at their meetings who talked about their writing. I read their books and the books of some of the members of both groups. I was learning.

Since a writer needs a place in which to set a story, a few came up. First, I got called to jury duty. Then Richard got called. He went to downtown Los Angeles the same day the O.J. Simpson jurors were called. He came home and told me about the media circus down there with news cameras, helicopters, and microphones. My first Gin Caulfield book was called Media Justice about a high-profile case, the media’s influence, and Gin gets called to jury duty.

Next, Richard and I got free tickets to the Santa Anita Race Track. That became the opening of the second mystery in the Gin Caulfield Mystery Series, Hedge Bet. But then something else happened. I read another book.

This book was Eighteen by Jan Burke. Jan was a member of Sisters-in-Crime and I picked up her book of short stories. I loved the book and the idea of writing a short story. So I wrote one about an ex-mobster turned private detective. Then I wrote another one about the same guy. Then Sisters-in-Crime announced their latest anthology and asked for submissions. The theme of the anthology was landmarks in Los Angeles. I had to write another story, but it just so happened Richard invited me downtown for lunch one day and we went to the Bonaventure Hotel. That landmark ended up being the one I used in my story and the story got in the anthology. I thanked Jan for her inspiration.

Now I had three stories with the same character. The reviews for my story in the anthology were good, so I wanted to write more with him as the lead. So I wrote a couple more, but can you do a book of short stories all about the same guy?

Then I met another writer. I had read a lot of his books as a teenager and read even more after I met him. His name: Ray Bradbury. Jackie Houchin, a fellow Writers-in-Residence member and good friend, and I went to the opening of his play Fahrenheit 451 since Jackie reviewed plays for a local newspaper as well as an on-line paper. She got to bring a guest, me, but I thought I should review the play, too, since we got in free. On Opening Night Mr. Bradbury mentioned the time he had a batch of short stories he wanted to have published so he asked his publisher what he should do with them. The publisher told Ray to link the stories together which he did and The Martian Chronicles was published. So I had my answer from a writer who got the job done. I linked the Johnny Casino short stories together like a TV series.

I have three books in the Johnny Casino Casebook Series out there now thanks to inspiration from my husband, a book by Jan Burke, some advice from one of the best writers in history, Ray Bradbury, a chance to review Ray’s play because of a friend, and the fact I liked mysteries and wanted to write them.

Ninety present of the books I read are mysteries. I have learned a lot from each one: What to do and what not to do. And also what I can do better. But reading sure made a difference in my writing. If you are a writer: Read On!

Author: gbpool

A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (writing as G.B. Pool) writes three detective series: the Gin Caulfield P.I. series (Media Justice, Hedge Bet & Damning Evidence), The Johnny Casino Casebook Series, and the Chance McCoy detective series. She also penned a series of spy novels, The SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power. She has a collection of short stories in From Light To DARK, as well as novels: Eddie Buick’s Last Case, Enchanted: The Ring, The Rose, and The Rapier, The Santa Claus Singer, and three delightful holiday storied, Bearnard’s Christmas, The Santa Claus Machine, and Every Castle Needs a Dragon. Also published: CAVERNS, Only in Hollywood, and Closer. She is the former Speakers Bureau Director for Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and also a member of Mystery Writers of America and The Woman’s Club of Hollywood. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” (The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook and So You Want to be a Writer are available.) “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line” in sunny Southern California. Website: www.gbpool.com.

19 thoughts on “Here’s a Novel Idea: Read a Book”

  1. Gayle, thank you for a wonderful post about your successful writing journey. Reading other authors’ books not only in our own genre but in others we’d probably never open is a great idea, especially for those starting out. Amazing what comes our way, as Bradbury once noted in a different context. While self-publishing is a blessing to many, I have lately had to wade through some true disasters that turned out to be a waste of money even on kindle. As you say, finding a favorite author is the way to go if booksellers and librarians know their job. Our local chain currently hires young (read “low-cost”) people who know little about literature. Reading certainly is an inspiration for writers most of the time. I guess the word is discrimination – in the correct context.

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    1. Jill, If we can get more young folks to read, we will be doing more to increase their chances for success in whatever field they enter. Maybe if these bookstores asked their new hires to read and review a book or two and post those reviews on the shelves next to the books they read more folks would read. (If you noticed, I used the word “read” three times in that last sentence. It’s a good idea.)

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  2. Yes, yes, and yes! I’ve said before, and will say again, LOVE this picture of you and Ray Bradbury–the expression on his face is priceless! I have book club tomorrow…where we read, read, and read… I was born before TV(which I love!) was in every home, so but started my life with the written word!

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    1. We didn’t get a television until we came back from Dad’s tour of duty on Okinawa when I was 8. And my Mom read lots of books. Both things kept my mind active. Sad to think some kids now don’t know how to think. Thanks for your comments, Mad. Your written words are almost visual to the mind.

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  3. Love your post, Gayle, and I remember so many of the steps listed. I’m so proud of you, and encouraged by your journey. You soldiered on when a lot of us gave up. I admire your mind and the many plots and twists you came up with (and the many hilarious puns in your lighter stories). You are amazing! And I love how willing you are to share your experience and and lessons learned. Your nonfiction writing manuals are invaluable too.

    I haven’t written fiction for a while – mostly book reviews and a few essays for my personal blog now – but I’m dusting off a patriotic story to submit soon. Maybe I’ll link a new one to it. Thanks for the idea!

    My post next week will be bouncing off yours – reading books. I have an interesting theme to suggest.

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    1. Your stories are always clever, Jaxon. And I can still remember some of the newspaper articles you wrote. You always captured the essence of the subject.

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  4. Excellent and inspirational post, Gayle! I love to read, and it is sometimes surprising when others’ works precipitate fun and productive writing ideas. Thanks for telling your story and your novel idea!

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  5. Great post, GB, and so right-on. I have always loved to read. Ironically, I love to read mysteries, but I’m just not smart enough to write them! But I do learn from reading other books and learn from the good ones … and the bad, actually. As I like to say, “everyone has a purpose, even it’s to serve as a bad example.”

    Boise has a terrific indie bookstore, Rediscovered Books, and they are really supportive of local authors. In addition, their booksellers DO know about books and are good sources of recommendations. The store occasionally has a “book and wine tasting event” where they invite in a local winery so ticketholders can sample local wines while listening to bookstore employees talk about books they love and why they love them. I’ve found lots of new favorites, both books and wines, at those events.

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    1. Maybe other bookstores will follow their example. Most of the bookstores in Southern California just went out of business. Maybe I can find a few here in Ohio who might want to do what they do in Boise. People need to read more… and have some wine.

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  6. Great post, Gayle. I come from a long line of readers, writers, and teachers. My strong sense of justice probably got its start from reading mysteries and from reading advice columns and crime accounts in the paper (do many 10-year olds read about true crime?—at least one did!) This inevitably led to writing mysteries. I find inspiration from other authors, TV, movies, you name it. My favorite short story of yours: “A Role To Die For.”

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    1. Thanks, Maggie. I started out reading my Mom’s collection of mystery books and then worked as a private detective for a while just to see how that went. Books are far more interesting.

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  7. I enjoy all the media sources you write about, but there’s an intimacy to reading – just you and the words on the page – that you don’t get from TV, movies or even plays. My earliest memory of books came from my mother reading them to me as a little child, hearing stories told by her. It’s probably why most of my writing stems from stories or comments I’ve heard from others, but it all began with the written word. Another great post, Gayle.

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    1. Reading does let the reader participate more than just being more or less a voyeur. My Mom read to me, too. Heidi was one of the first books.

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  8. What a great post, Gayle! I’m so glad you shared your inspiring journey of your prolific writing success! (Love the photo of you and Ray Bradbury!) In my family we were taught to read almost before we could walk. Family conversations often focused on books we had read or were encouraged to read. And on my recent holiday with my siblings, we all had a stack of books we were reading. Now that I’m able to focus back on my own writing, I continue to find inspiration from books I’ve read – good and bad! Thanks, Gayle.

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    1. Parents need to be more engaged in their kid’s upbringing. Take away the digital stuff and hand them a book. It keeps their mind open. Thanks, Rosie.

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