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!