Over the last few weeks I’ve come across more than one article on writers and their influences. Every writer has one person we consider a mentor whether we acknowledge them as such or not. We usually think about mentors as the person who stands over us, and guides us in negotiating the world as it appears to a beginner. But in writing, the influence is both more subtle and more complicated.
James Crumley, like many others, thinks of Raymond Chandler as his lamp on the highway of narration, and William Zinsser thinks of E. B. White and his light tone before he begins work. R. V. Raman grew up reading Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, and other writers of the Golden Age, which spurred his longing to write a traditional mystery set in India. Dorothea Brande talks about influences in more specific terms.
After warning the writer against imitating others in Becoming a Writer, she suggests the beginner analyze her work for its weaknesses and then seek out those who have the skills she lacks. If your dialogue is wooden or uninteresting, pick up a book by a writer known for riveting, revealing dialogue, and discover that no two people speak exactly alike. The distinction is more than the occasional vocabulary item, and a good dialogue will challenge the reader. I thought about her advice when I began working on Below the Tree Line: A Pioneer Mystery, which is set in a rural area quite different from where I live though I know it fairly well. My love of the traditional mystery, by writers such as Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and others, should be obvious. But others also played a role.
Although many writers spend time setting a scene in the mountains or along the ocean, few use it as a character as well as a now-forgotten English writer, P.M. Hubbard. Published in the 1960s and 1970s, he often set his stories in a natural world of both beauty and danger. His final scenes of The Quiet River have stayed with me over the years, a reminder of how powerful nature can be not only in shaping a story by challenging characters but also by undermining their civilized veneer, and washing away illusions of control and safety.
No story or novel is written today without influence from other fiction even if the story line is based on a true story. When I think of The Scarlet Letter, I wonder if Hawthorne was thinking of Edgar Allan Poe, whose crime tales and other work he admired. This classic novel reads to me as an early crime novel, with Chillingworth, the outraged husband, appearing as a secret sleuth out for revenge. He investigates, zeroes in on a suspicious situation, and moves closer to a suspect, driving this man further into despair. I’m not the first one to have entertained this idea. I just like the sense of writers working in conversation with others, learning from each other and engaging in a dialogue with our predecessors in our narratives.