Reading on a Theme: Learning Your History

Years after graduation, I still miss school once in a while, and never so much as when I wish I had the time and excuse to read a number of interconnected books the way I would for an English class — titles that somehow link together, whether by author or time period or style of writing or genre. I loved being about to read several works in a row and have discussions about what made them similar, what the authors were trying to accomplish, how the works played off of each other.

Reading on a theme gets more difficult once you leave school. In my case, there’s a lot of other reading mixed in with my personal choices, so there can be huge gaps of time and many other works addressed between books I’m reading for pleasure. But of course, if you’re looking to write in a particular genre, reading on a theme should be part of your regular routine.

Working on a young adult manuscript? You should be reading young adult books, new and old, bestsellers and quiet mid-listers. Writing a romance? Get to know the history of the genre. Dig into some of the old favorites you hear mentioned by friends or on blogs. Read all the big authors. Check out some debut  titles. Creating your own fantasy world? You’d better have an idea of what’s been done before.

So this sort of academic approach to a specific reading topic isn’t just useful for your own edification, but for mapping out the playground where you’ve chosen to spend your time. Yes, you need to read the recent books to know what’s working at the moment, but you should also get an idea of what’s come before, of the sorts of stories that serve as the foundation for the titles that came later. Create your own survey course and wade into the books that readers loved ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Only then can you say with some certainty whether your ideas are fresh.

Most genres come with a huge backlist, and no one expects you to read them all. But a little bit of digging can help you come up with a list to start from, including the landmark titles that changed the genre and the authors who have contributed the biggest ideas. Check out the websites of writers you admire and see if they recommend books that influenced them along the way. Ask your local librarian for their thoughts on important books in your genre. Visit university websites and see what titles are covered in any genre-specific courses they might teach. By all means, read titles in that genre randomly, as you discover them, but also consider a more systematic approach, where you read some works chronologically to get a real idea of how the influences flowed from one generation of writers to the next.

All writers need to read broadly, to improve their general knowledge and gain inspiration, but you must also take the time to learn the ins and outs of the genre that interests you most. Only once you know the rules — what’s been done, what’s been overdone — can you turn things on end and create something different.

2 thoughts on “Reading on a Theme: Learning Your History

  1. Great post! And something we authors often forget in the harried business of life. I’m lucky enough to be in an MFA program that emphasizes reading outside your genre for this very reason and I can say it’s really broadened my horizons and made me a better writer.

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