Sandra Brown, “These eight books influenced me to become a writer.”

Sandra Brown, “These eight books influenced me to become a writer.”

I was asked to guest blog about books that influenced me to become a writer.

Hmm. Not as easy a request as it might seem. No doubt every book I’ve read, or that was read aloud to me before I acquired the skill, inched me a little closer toward becoming a novelist. I could start with my favorite bedtime story, “Bedtime for Frances,” and go from there.

But it would take me forever to comprise such a comprehensive list, I was given a word count for this piece, and you have other things to do.

So, I whittled the list down to eight books that I consider great because I learned a profound lesson about writing from each of them. I’ve been a published author for over thirty years, so these books, like me, aren’t newcomers. They are, however, still worth reading, whether for pleasure or for study if you’re an aspiring writer.

Before I get to the list, I also want to make clear that the mentioned book may be representative of an author whose entire body of work helped shape my writing. One other point: Whenever I refer to readers, count me first among them.

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            With those qualifications in mind, here in no particular order are the Eight Great.

Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas. The impact of this book is the hero’s arc, the journey he makes from privileged playboy to dedicated physician. Self-sacrifice is a vital character trait of the classical mythic protagonist, and it’s a more engaging and entertaining story if he starts out weak, selfish, dishonest, cowardly, or otherwise less than ideal. Readers love a scoundrel redeemed.

The Rendezvous by Evelyn Anthony. Her body of work has had a tremendous influence on my writing, but this novel in particular stands out. It’s about a former Nazi SS officer and a woman who fought in the French Resistance, whom he interrogated. When their paths accidentally cross years after the war, the suspense is heart-pounding and the romance heart-wrenching. They are forbidden to each other, you see. And nothing is more enticing than what we desire but can’t have. Ask Eve. Readers love the forbidden.

Testimony of Two Men by Taylor Caldwell. After reading this book, I thought, “This is what I want to do. I want to write stories like this.” I don’t. Not even close, in fact. This isn’t a fast-paced thriller but a multigenerational family saga. However, what I learned from it is that I can’t go soft on my main characters no matter how much affection I feel toward them. Bad stuff has to happen or the reader won’t worry about a positive outcome to the story. It’s sick, I know, but readers love rocks being thrown at heroes or heroines when they’re in the bottom of the pit.

     The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. I once heard it said by someone much smarter than I that a book is only as good as its villain. Hannibal Lecter was a cannibal, for crying out loud! At the same time, he was seductive to both the characters in the story and the reader. Think Dracula. Readers want villains who fascinate as well as frighten them.

The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss. This book is absolutely enchanting. Heather is beautiful. Brandon is beautiful. They sail the high seas in his ship, in lust and in love. It’s a fairy tale, pure and simple. I don’t care. I’m swept away, enthralled by the fantasy, wishing I could be the star of it. Readers want to believe even if they must suspend disbelief.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. This book is one long lesson in characterization and motivation. Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most enduring characters of fiction for a reason. She is selfish, stubborn, without remorse, and wickedly manipulative, but “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” Readers will forgive just about any What if the Why is relatable and compelling.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams. Okay, I know it’s a play, not a book, but I adore the teeming decadence. A lot of humanity is packed into a brief amount of time. The situation is rife with conflict: combustion waiting to happen. The cast is small, but their problems are large. One can’t watch the catharsis without being held uncomfortably spellbound and taking a deep breath afterward. Readers crave impact.

The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett. This novel is proof that suspense and sex aren’t mutually exclusive, that, in fact, one element heightens the level of the other and contributes to the tension of a situation that’s already redolent with danger. It ups the stakes and increases the risks for the characters. Mr. Follett wrote it so well that he paved an easier path for me and my colleagues who wanted to write books that now fall into the category of romantic suspense. Readers want to feel excitement in mind, heart, and body.

So there they are—my Great Eight. It’s presumptuous even to claim that these writers and their books influenced me and my work, but I hope that a sentence here or there has done them justice.

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