The Big Question

The following is a part of the back-to-basics June series of posts. Starting next month, these craft essays will be for paid subscribers only. So if you enjoy these, please be sure you subscribe!

When I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing a book, the first thing I did was sign up for a writing class at the community college. It was a continuing education course called, “Writing the Modern Romance Novel.” I read a lot of romance and wanted to try to write them so this class seemed perfect for me.

It turned out it wasn’t as much a writing class but a primer on the romance industry and how to be a romance author. However, the teacher encouraged us to write and she read some of my early pages and encouraged me. She also got me to join my local RWA chapter, which changed my life.

But the reason I bring the class up is the teacher asked a question on the first night that changed everything for me. It was such a simple concept that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before.

I’d gone into the class believing I would write sweeping historical romances. But I was intimidated by all the research involved, even though I’m a research nerd. I knew instinctively that learning the craft of fiction combined with the rigors of research might be too daunting for my first project. So I’d asked her, “How do I know what to write?”

She said: “What do you like to read?”

Obviously I read a lot of historical romance and historical fiction in general. But when I went home to really think about her question, I went to my bookcases and really paid attention to what I’d been reading. Turned out I was a major vampire fan. I didn’t identify as such. I just had always read a lot of vampire fiction—from the Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles I feasted on in high school and college to the more recent paranormal romances I’d been reading during the boom of the subgenre in the early 2000s.

I couldn’t believe I didn’t know this about myself. But once I identified vampires as a favorite reading subject, I remembered that I’d had an idea years earlier for a story about a museum curator who fell in love with a guy in an historical painting. I knew that the guy would somehow show up and shenanigans would ensure but I’d never been able to figure out how to make it work in a story.

Then the lightning struck—the guy in the painting was a vampire and he showed up at the museum. He’d claim he was an ancestor of the guy in the painting. Shenanigans would ensue.

This idea became the first novel I ever wrote: The Art of Loving a Vampire. It was a romantic comedy in the style of Lynsay Sands or Katie MacGregor, two authors I loved to read back then. I went back and self-published that book and it’s sequel a few years ago. They’re clearly early works of mine, a little bit derivative and clumsy, but I love them and hope to return to writing romantic comedy again one day because it’s so fun.

My point is that what you think you should or want to write may not be what you actually need to write right now. Paying attention to what I loved to read opened a door to completing my first manuscript. (Also note that writing vampires does actually bring in my love of history, so I was right about that part but needed to apply it in a different way. Now I use a lot of research for world building and a lot of my books to give a big nod to history.)

Later, paying attention to what I was reading led to my first Urban Fantasy novel, Red-Headed Stepchild, which is now a USA Today Bestselling book in a series that’s won awards.

So my back-to-basics questions for you today are: What do you love to read? How can you use that info to inform your writing today?