Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

IWSG: On Reading and Writing

On the first Wednesday of the month, the Insecure Writer's Support Group, posts a question. This month, the question challenges us to think about writers who read what others have written -- and those who don't.

This is not an easy question. I still remember the thrill of holding my own book, sitting in a straw-backed chair just my size. Later, I loved reading as a way to distance myself from the chaos around me. I used to pace up and down the rows of books at the school’s library, choosing the thickest books. Jump a few decades forward, and, my husband and I would prowl used bookstores, spending hours to find the perfect read. As a teacher, I needed to read voraciously. Think 70-hour weeks, research for class prep, student papers, and, of course, whatever was on my ‘to read’ list. Which often meant another trip to the library. Then came the internet. More reading.

I always knew that someday I would write my own stories, though I wasn’t quite sure what they’d be about. Poetry and short stories kept that part of my mind and heart occupied between work commitments. Once retired, I took a class in creative writing, hopeful of finding a direction, perhaps to finish that serial murder story I’d started. My teacher stood up on the first night of class and told us we could write whatever we wanted – except a story that involved violence. Oops. Well, I thought, if I can’t finish my stories, I’ll just write about mermaids.

That led to my first book, an anthology of short stories about mermaids (The Mermaid Quilt & Other Tales). One of those stories about a selkie off the coast of Scotland morphed into historical fiction about the impact of the Industrial Revolution on a small family of fishermen who were ousted from their homes and replaced by sheep, during a time known as the Clearances. The novel (Standing Stones) took three years to write and included a two-month research trip to Scotland. Since then, I’ve written two more novels in this series, set in Australia (Years of Stone), and Canada (Rivers of Stone), all roughly in the 1840s. Really fun. Not always easy.

How could I not read what others have written? These days, I’m drawn to studying what makes good fiction work and how to improve my writing productivity. After all, as a writer in her mid-70’s, how many stories can I tell?

To the question: Do I still read voraciously? Yes, but now for relaxation (genre fiction), and for research (just maybe Egypt, for the next story). After 26 years as a community college English teacher, I find it quite hard to separate reading for entertainment from critiquing what I’m reading (theme, plotting, characterization, style, and, yes, even typos). I’m thrilled when I can follow the hero or heroine’s journey in well-written genre fiction.

For that’s one responsibility I embrace: How to write a story that reflects those mythic journeys of my characters and helps us understand what others have experienced in other lands and other times. Oh, the humanity! For our writing is shaped by all we’ve read. No writer can really ignore the passion or the insight of classic writers like Aristotle, Dostoyevsky, Camus, and many others, or deny their writing has not been shaped by every story he or she has ever read. Do you remember the thrill of discovering the wolf in Grandma’s bed, awaiting Little Red Riding Hood?

For those who write their own words, as if stories sprang unique and unencumbered by what others have experienced and/or written about, write on! But I don’t quite understand how writers cannot love reading. Maybe when I’m deep in my own stories, I set aside some of my outside reading. For a time measured in days. But there’s always a book waiting.

Wednesday IWSG October 2 question - It's been said that the benefits of becoming a writer who does not read is that all your ideas are new and original. Everything you do is an extension of yourself, instead of a mixture of you and another author. On the other hand, how can you expect other people to want your writing, if you don't enjoy reading? What are your thoughts?

Thank you to this month's co-hosts: Ronel Janse van Vuuren, Mary Aalgaard, Madeline Mora-Summonte, and Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor!  Check out what others have written by going to IWSG's website. Read around a little, leave a comment. How would YOU answer this question?

Getting ready for NaNoWriMo?


  1. I admire writers who pen historical fiction. I love research and going to Scotland for research sounds pretty cool to me. But I'm afraid I would slip and add "What's up?" or some other saying used in the 21 st century into the story from the 1850's. Readers would definitely catch it and I would never be considered a historical writer again. sigh. Enjoyed your blog post. So thoughtful and well said. Keep writing!
    JQ Rose

    1. Thank you for your kind comments, especially about word choice. Yes, I tried to catch any 'back from the future' words, but the heart of the story is the relationships between people trying to protect their families. Those emotions carry the story, that and a fictional retelling of those forced clearances, which I somehow came to care about. I'd say, go ahead. Write the stories you want. An editor can always doublecheck syntax!