What do you have to read in order to write in a genre?

This question was posed elsewhere, and responses were quick to make fun of mandatory reading, and of “Reading The Classics”. I, on the other hand, propose a different answer.

There is no have to. Do I look like your abuela? But here is what you should do, in order to improve:

Read widely. Read deeply. Read the critically-acclaimed successes. Read the high-selling works the critics declaimed as Trash or Merely Pulp.

Read the dime store novels, the here today and gone tomorrow that had brilliant vivid covers on the truck stop spinner racks and now lurk in piles at the used bookstore with dogeared pages and cracked spines that show they were read and re-read.

Read other genres. Follow the late and much loved Dave Wolverton (David Farland)’s advice and research deeply something you don’t think you’ll be interested in. Read scientific papers. Read industry trade rags for industries you’re not in. Read biographies. Read fanfiction. Read Appendix N.

Is it impossible to achieve success without this? Of course not. If you do this, will you automagically succeed? Hah! Don’t we all wish we knew The Way To Assured Success?

What it will give you is a huge and ever-growing foundation of ideas, of words in action to interest, excite, and inform you. Words that astound you, entrance and bedazzle you, and fill your mind’s eye with places that never were, and the people completely unlike you in jobs you’ve never done who were larger and more real than life, with situations and cultures, items and economies, worlds and possibilities…

And a much former grasp on the markers of your favourite genre, because you’ve seen how it’s grown, changed, and explored its limits.

I have known garage bands who never had a classical music education who came up with some really great music. They couldn’t tell me why, because they lacked the technical vocabulary that thousands of years of music offers.

I have known garage bands that never studied music outside the things they grew up listening to on the radio, who were utterly frustrated with the limits of the popular style… but because they didn’t seek out and experience music or training beyond their scene, they were fumbling in the dark and failing to reinvent the wheel from scratch.

I have known bands working the club scene and ampitheatres that had members with a classical music background, and the audience thought they were amazing, fresh and new and completely unexpected… because they were adding Things From Elsewhere into the current expected style.

Why is Sabaton incredibly popular in a way that transcends the metal scene? Because first off, they’re really good musicians. Second, because they know their martial history. That’s well outside the genre norms, and adding the unexpected to the comforting and familiar, and doing it well, makes them amazing.

So seek out bold new words… in the history of your favourite genres, and well outside them.

39 thoughts on “What do you have to read in order to write in a genre?

  1. I know musicians/bands who only pay attention to pop stuff who think they invented something new, and i can cite a band that did it 20+ years ago

    1. Yes. Gotta love people who think they are the original inventors of the wheel.

      Usually they’re worse than the actual original.

  2. Elvis had a record collection of over 2000 albums, disks and singles covering every musical genre imaginable. And it wasn’t like in a box either. He apparently built an entire room in his mansion that was dedicated to listening to music, with really good acoustics and everything in walls and racks that were easily accessible ready to pull from and listen to anything at any time.

    If it was music, he listened to it.

    Which reminds me, I should probably ask the horde for a recommendation of ten or so classic good romance novels. Not a genre I have read much in.

    1. Georgette Heyer (Regency) — unmatched queen of the form. They’re all good, but one of my personal favorites is “Frederika”. Also: Arabella, Sprig Muslin, The Grand Sophy, Friday’s Child, and (unusual — arranged marriage across classes) A Civil Contract.

      [Warning — Heyer wrote in other genres, which I personally don’t like as well, though many like her historical (non-Romance) novels and modern works].

    2. Everybody recommends Heyer. I honestly can’t stand her.

      I like Lynn Kurland’s Stardust of Yesterday as a place to start.

      Of course, I have recommendation lists that vary by subgenre and can run into the hundreds. It all depends on what KIND of Romance you want to read.

  3. https://www.silverpetticoatreview.com/why-you-should-read-mary-stewart/

    My Mary Stewart favorites are *Airs Above the Ground* (because of the horses), *Touch not the Cat* (for the cross-time stuff), and *Rose Cottage*. All of hers are good, and they go in different directions on the same romance genre theme.

    The paranormal romances written by Illona Andrews. I’m working on *On the Edge* and *Iron and Magic*. Christine Feehan’s PNR Dark series is a huge seller, pure pulp, and most of them set my teeth on edge. Several got thrown against the proverbial wall for hitting my personal buttons HARD. But she sells. So she’s doing something right.

      1. There a reason there are so many Romance genres. What pushes one person’s buttons in romantic mate choices can gross another person out. And in modern romance, the intimate bedroom scenes are especially fraught with disgust-risk (moral or physical).

        If you want to dig into this seriously, I recommend studying Nora Roberts as the ur-model of a professional writer of Romance in several genres. Her earlier works, as for all Harlequin-gated authors, are pretty unreadable for modern tastes today, but her later stuff (circa 2010 and later) are a workshop of how to think about a Romance audience.

        My analysis (yours may differ) goes like this:

        1) Identify a minutely detailed set of target audience genres. Roberts has, for example, “real world” (no supernatural); “paranormal or magic-touched”; “futuristic”; “Irish-tinged”; etc., etc. She even has a Romantic-Near Future-Police Procedural genre (“In Death”) under a pen name (J.D. Robb) which is wildly successful (I like it, too). [The old Harlequins as a product were forced to be minutely targeted, but Roberts today has long since broken out of that into something more flexible.] This attracts loosely interested readership by broad categories (sub-genres) — it sets broad reader expectations.

        2) Identify particular hooks within the sub-genres. These are a sort of “cozy” trigger in that they work for particular audiences, the way “cozies” do, even if the hooks are not necessarily pleasant (e.g., trauma). For example, when I look analytically at my favorite Roberts, I realize they pretty much all contain the same elements which work for me (entrepreneurial independent business woman, dog, home/inn- building/reconstruction, humor) — these are so specific in each of my favorites that I realize it can’t be an accident — I must be a defined target. Roberts does a lot of research.

        3) Avoid “just because” and real-world wishful thinking. One of the very big failures in the Romance super-class is its willingness to include “love will happen because I’m so great/I’m so needy” and love will end up removing all problems (e.g., “My Super-Billionaire Cowboy”).

        1. Regarding “love will end up removing all problems”, don’t forget “great sex will solve all problems”.

          One “Urban Fantasy” series did a great job of playing AGAINST that theme.

          The two main characters just had “Great Sex” but the “relationship problems” between the two were still there. 😆

        2. I can see how that could result in hard nope. There’s already at least one spot I’m seriously debating whether I can write around the sequence without losing the state of mind information. Problem is, despite her coming across as a sort of force of nature, she’s also operating from an incredibly bad place.

          Interestingly enough, the male lead’s atc is changing enough this may end up turning into a more standard heroes journey type thing, with her arc being more of a hidden arc?

          Definitely going to be one weird ride…

        3. “My Super-Billionaire Cowboy”

          In my completely uneducated opinion, “billionaire” is to the contemporary romance what “duke” is to the Regency romance. Namely, there are far more of them running around that statistics would suggest is even possible, the responsibilities of being one do not preclude them also taking up whatever career the writer finds sexiest, and they’re all just dying to lavish all of their resources and attention on the naive every girl.

      2. Out-and-out sexual assault later justified by “He needs me! I love him, he’s my soulmate.” Some went beyond “just” assault. I have 0, no, nil tolerance for that. Plus Feehan’s books tend to be four-alarm-levels of “spicy romance.” I prefer a light touch on the anatomy and to let the imagination do the work.

        Early paranormal romance was “girl meets supernatural being, romance follows.” A large subset of the genre then went in unhealthy directions, where abuse is tolerated or even encouraged by “it’s love and the other person needs to do this to me so it’s OK. No, it’s great! I love this!” Note, in my opinion, what consenting adults do in private is their business, so long as consent is truly given and abuse/coercion/deception is NOT involved. There’s a chunk of PNR that crosses that line.

        1. Ok, basically things that no marriage counselor would describe as the hallmarks of a healthy relationship then. Cool.

          Basically the same reasons I see the version of Great Expectations where Pip ends up with the girl to be the bad ending.

    1. Horses… the only Josephine Tey book I care about is “Brat Farrar”, and it’s largely about the horses, too. 🙂

      Not a “Romance” per se, but that particular mixed genre sort of novel the British produced in that period. It certainly had a subdued romance sub-theme.

  4. I’m loving me some non-fiction at the moment, as I flesh out a faux-regency urban setting for a long-series fantasy.

    I’ve found a military history fellow Bred Devereaux (https://acoup.blog/) who has produced many good articles from classical antiquity up to early-modern laying out just why cities and their environs look and grow the way they do at different stages, the economics and logistics of moving armies or food around, the time-and-money limitations on grand world-building & action scenarios, and other real-world issues which are so commonly glossed over in story telling for “Medieval Village – Model A17… it’ll do”.

    This is made especially pointed by his detailed and amusing extended critiques of just those modern movies/series that “inform” our understanding of the medieval period (start with his critiques of Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) and HBO-Benioff (Game of Thrones) which explore in sarcastic detail so much of what’s wrong about their strategic settings (castles, armies, logistics) and economics (where’s the “garden” of “Highgarden”?) and fighting (everything wrong with the Battle of Helm’s Deep — we knew there was a lot, but it’s much worse than that (and Tolkien, with his war experience, was right — it’s Jackson who’s wrong)).

    All it takes is a well-informed discussion of how the agricultural bands that surround a city grow and change over time, and why, to make me start adding market gardens near the city walls and changing my road networks. I can feel my fictional world-building growing with each feed of real-world economic/strategic/logistical data, and the malleable story stretches and adjusts at the same time — it’s all very organic.

    An earlier dose came in when I started reading in great depth the European history of horse-drawn transportation (urban & rural). It’s not that I am writing actual historical works — but these things were the way they were for “reasons”, and those reasons are operative in my world, too. Once those reasons become clear for me as systems (rather than just accepted “impressions”), all my world-building is more real, and it pushes my story choices along.

    It also makes me really irritable as a reader, since it increases the incidence of “that’s not how that works!” followed by flung book meeting wall. My trigger in that area was already too sensitive. 🙂

  5. Any recommendations for steampunk? I have an idea for a steampunk-western, but most of the steampunk I’ve read is more urban than western.

    1. Watch the old “Wild, Wild, West” TV series. It predates steampunk, but gives a western take on high-tech, sort of. It ought to at least be a decent starting point.

      1. I think I ran across one of the old Sartana spaghetti westerns on Pluto TV not that long ago. They were also in the same “dapper dudes with gadgetry” vein as Wild Wild West, presumably inspired by it.

      2. Wild Wild West, both the TV series and the 1999 movie are excellent examples I think. Also, the underrated TV Brisco County Jr and The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne.

    2. Have you read Jules Verne? He’s sort of the father of Steampunk. William Gibson’s *The Difference Engine* is considered the first modern steampunk novel. Jon Del Arroz has some good ones. (Weird West is the fantasy side of steampunk). Amazon’s rankings show Dan Willis’ *Arcane Casebook* series as dominating the Amazon chart. Patricia Wrede’s *Frontier Magic* trilogy is more weird west, and is YA, but is a fun read.

      1. Kat Kimbriel’s “Night Calls” series of books is also “Weird West”, but set in the NorthWest Territory in about 1790 / 1800. It has a flavor closer to Manley Wellman’s “Silver John” books, with Frontier Magic / folklore.

        1. Okay, maybe I wasn’t doing a good job looking for Katharine Eliska Kimbriel…. That new name sure came up quickly.

          I mean, not a fan of her books, but it’s definitely always been a memorable name. Sigh, I really haven’t been going to bookstores much.

      2. Verne and Gibson I’ve read. I’ll look up the others. I’ve been watching Jon Del Arroz youtube videos and have been looking for a place to start reading him.

      3. SOME part of many romances is:
        I want that LIFE the man is living. Not that I want to work for it, as he does. I just want to be GIVEN that life, as his partner in life.
        The above explains a lot of the “billionaire/nobility” genres.
        What to read:
        – Agatha Christie – yes, I know she’s known for her mysteries, but she includes a lot of romance in those stories, of the not-explicitly sexual type.
        – Nine Coaches Waiting – yes, it’s a gothic-type tale, but also about love, and the limits to which a person will go to keep that love.
        – Rebecca – obsession – on the part of BOTH Rebecca and the 2nd Mrs. de Winter – and love/desire/lust for the status.
        Love, for women, is very often allied to status-seeking. That explains a lot of marriages that don’t survive the loss of a job. It also explains a lot of the jockeying that mothers do for the status of their children. Morality has NOTHING to do with it (which often comes as quite a shock to men). For many women, no underhanded action is beneath them, if it results in improved status.

      1. I’ve been reading Girl Genius since the first issue showed up at my local comic store. Before the web version started. love that series.

  6. The irony is that I read a wide and varied selection by choice for fun, but when I specifically read for research — perhaps I should check out a bestseller? — it’s always bad.

      1. In my case, I’m pretty sure it’s an age-demographic thing. My share of the demographic is pretty small these days, and my memory goes back a long way for things I like. The bulk of the authors writing in many of the genres I like are much younger (1-2 generations) and a much larger part of the writing demographic.

        I thought about trying to write the sort of thing (in my chosen genre) that is more popular today, but I couldn’t make myself do it. I have to write the sort of books I would want to read, even if that target is mighty small. There are still books written today that suit me, no doubt largely from authors in my own generation. The sole exception is SFF, where the percentage of books I enjoy from newer authors is rather larger, once I identify and eliminate the ruinous and corrupting wokerei.

        1. I think a lot of the older kind of stuff would still sell well. There’s sure as heck a lot of younger people discovering the older “comfort read” authors, for instance.

  7. Well since this is my current obsession I’m just going to say that reading the Divine Comedy has been eye-opening. I originally thought it was a travelogue and it isn’t. It is *an adventure* and Dante really knew how to build a relationship and misdirect his readers. Reading it would probably inform any genre you choose BUT I highly recommend reading it the way you read anything else. If you skip some hard part, no big deal. You can always go back later. Meanwhile you will have beautiful poetry in your mind, amazing metaphors, and lots of surprises.

  8. So, to sum up, if you’re reading anything at all, you’re probably reading something you’ll find useful in your writing.

  9. At least the trade mags I scan (factory automation) aren’t very useful for fiction, because they’re not realistic. It’s simple financial math: they survive based on advertising, so they write about what the manufacturers are pushing, not what people are actually using (which is typically much older and less shiny, but works). The better ones have articles about real systems, but those are still equipment, not people, oriented.

    I think reading biographies of people in various industries would give a much better idea of what it’s like (and not just famous people. This book on Joseph Gerber (of PCB Gerber file fame, but he did more) sounds interesting: https://www.amazon.com/Inventors-Dilemma-Remarkable-Joseph-Gerber/dp/0300123507/ ).

    Oral histories are another good source. Stanford used to have a fun series with oral histories of early Silicon Valley, but last time I checked, they had hidden the transcripts. The US Naval Institute has an extensive oral history project for US naval history.

  10. One thing I’m thinking is that tvtropes.com is a good place to go to see what tropes are used in the different genres. The thing about the tropes is if you do them wrong they are clichés, do them right they are archetypes. (According to Jim Butcher)

  11. Well, I have to say the original post led to some ‘interesting’ comments, which are an education in themselves! Thanks!

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