An Awkward Confession

By Mary Gillgannon

I’ve been writing historical romance for over twenty years. In the beginning, the genre was also my favorite reading material. I read the best-selling romance authors to find out what magic they worked to rise to the top. I read the “up-and-comings” to see what they offered and get a feel for the direction the market was headed. And I read pretty much anything in my preferred sub-genre, medieval and Viking romances. I once heard that before writing a book in a particular genre, you should read a hundred books of that type. Over the first few years of my writing career, I probably did that.

But gradually I got away from reading historical romance. I discovered historical mysteries, which helped me immerse myself in the world and time period I was writing in and often gave me new ideas for stories that were more unique than the ideas I got from romances. I dabbled in literary fiction, which had been my preferred reading in college and immediately afterwards. Chick lit came along and I ate it up. Fantasy started getting popular and I added it to my reading “oeuvre”. Then, a few years ago, I stumbled onto a contemporary mystery I really liked and started reading them too.

I’m currently writing my fifteenth historical romance, and yet I have to guiltily admit that, except for books written by friends, I haven’t read a historical romance from start to finish in years. I have good intentions. I purchase e-books that sound interesting and download free copies to help other authors get exposure. I order historical romances for the library where I work and sometimes even check them out. But some other book (or books) always seems to be calling me, and I never get far into the romances before I move on.

It doesn’t help that I acquire fiction as part of my job at a public library and read dozens of reviews every month, covering fiction in all sorts of genres. I usually skim the non-fiction reviews, too, adding to my choices. When I check in the new books (to confirm the cataloging is correct, etc.) I set aside the order slips of those I’m interested in. I now have a pile about fifty order slips on my desk. I’d like to read these books, but it seems like there’s always something new and irresistible and I seldom end up going to “the pile”. I guess I’m sort of ADHD when it comes to reading for pleasure.

Lately I’m obsessed with gritty contemporary mysteries set in the British Isles. I could never write stories like these. I don’t have a good feel for contemporary dialogue and as an American, I certainly couldn’t pull off the slang or the authentic local details that make these books so intriguing to me. For the most part, I avoid portraying much violence in my own stories (they are romances, after all), while these mysteries are full of dark and disturbing scenes. They also don’t have “happily ever after” endings. Indeed, sometimes the endings are downright grim.

I suspect that my preference for reading books that are nothing like what I write is a little weird. When I read interviews with writers and they discuss their reading habits, they may mention stories that are a bit different than what they write, but not usually the complete opposite. I’ve tried to analyze why my tastes are this way. Maybe it’s because when I’m writing, I’m living in that world on a much more intense level than when I’m reading. When I’m writing as a character, I really am that character, and I don’t want them to endure too much violence, pain or suffering because I don’t want to experience it myself on that intense level.

It’s one thing to be exposed to darkness and evil vicariously. Another to feel like you’re actually living it. In the books I read, I identify and care about a lot of the characters, but I don’t become them the way I do my characters. I can read a gritty mystery and go on an exciting, vicarious ride. But I don’t envision my real self in that world.

I’ve heard other authors complain that writing fiction takes away from enjoying reading it. You become too critical of technical details, too aware of pacing flaws and places where the characterization is weak, etc. You stop reading as a reader and start reading like an editor. For the most part, I’m pretty forgiving and tolerant of these things. If I find the story compelling, I can ignore a lot of issues that might bug some of my writer friends.

At least when I’m reading non-romances. When I read a romance, it’s much harder for me to turn off the editor in my head. And even if I have no problems with the writing itself, it’s hard for me not to think about how I would write the story. That puts a distance between me and the story and makes it hard for me to really immerse myself in the book. More specifically, other authors’ fantasies are not my fantasies, and that is ultimately a very important component of the romance reading experience.

Despite all these things, I plan to keep trying to read more romance. After I get through the two mysteries and the historical novel I’m waiting to come in at the library, and that book I just ordered that sounds so interesting and well… you know the rest.

What about you other writers out there? Is there a big discrepancy between your reading and writing interests?

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Mary GillgannonMary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library, where she she has the enviable task of purchasing adult fiction. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! For more about Mary, visit her website and blog. You can also find her on Facebook.

4 thoughts on “An Awkward Confession

  1. Julie Luek

    Mary this is interesting and now you have me thinking about my reading and writing habits. I definitely like to read and write nonfiction best. But I do love to dig into a good fiction book every now and again too. Very thought-provoking.

    Reply
  2. Patricia Stoltey

    Hi Mary! I share your tendency to read outside your genre. Even though I focus on crime fiction and suspense when I’m writing, I love to read everything else from post-apocalyptic and sci fi novels to women’s fiction. I also read memoir and other non-fiction.

    I recently read the memoir “Finding Rodolfo” and the YA novel “Divergent.” Am now reading “Doctor Lovebeads,” one of the Gary Reilly asphalt warrior books, and “The Tao of Writing.” I think it does help give us new ideas for writing in our own genre.

    Reply
    1. Mary Gillgannon

      Interesting book choices, Pat. I think reading in general helps “fill the well” that we draw from creatively when we write.

      Reply

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