February 7-13: “Which authors inspire you?”

Join ITW members Amy Robertson, Weston Ochse, Mike Sirota, Kelli Stanley, Michael Haskins, Reece Hirsch, Kate White, Jim Duncan, Weyman Jones, and Tracy March as they talk about their literary heroes. And don’t forget — everyone is welcome to post to the discussion!

Amy Dawson Robertson writes the Rennie Vogel Intrigue series, thrillers featuring the self-reliant operative Rennie Vogel in action-packed stories drawn on current events. Amy is a native Virginian and graduated from St. John’s College in Annapolis. She lives in the Washington DC area and her writing interests include genre fiction, short stories and graphic novels.

Weston Ochse spent 20 years in military intelligence and special operations and has worked extensively with every U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agency. In addition to his novels, his work has appeared in comic books, magazines and Writer’s Digest How-To books. He is the winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has won an international screenwriting award. He lives in Southern Arizona.

Mike Sirota is the author of nineteen previously published novels, including Demon Shadows and The Well (from Bantam Books) and the Bicycling Through Space and Time trilogy from Ace/Berkley. Formerly an award-winning journalist, he assists aspiring and published writers as an independent editor and writing coach. Mike lives in Oceanside, California with his wife, Jacqueline.

Kelli Stanley is an award-winning author of crime fiction. She writes two critically-acclaimed crime fiction series, one set in 1940 San Francisco (featuring hardboiled female PI, Miranda Corbie), the other in first century Roman Britain (the “Roman noir” Arcturus series). Her newest novel THE CURSE-MAKER releases on February 1st. Her novels include CITY OF DRAGONS, NOX DORMIENDA, and CITY OF SECRETS (September, 2011). “Children’s Day”, a prequel to CITY OF DRAGONS, was published in the International Thriller Writers anthology FIRST THRILLS: HIGH OCTANE STORIES FROM THE HOTTEST THRILLER AUTHORS.  You can learn more about Kelli and the worlds she creates athttp://www.kellistanley.com, friend her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.

Michael Haskins is the writer of the Mick Murphy Key West Mystery series. CHASIN’ THE WIND the first in the series, was published in March 2008 and the second book, FREE RANGE INSTITUTION, will be available in February 2011. He has finished the third book in the series, CAR WASH BLUES. He lives with his wife, family, and sailboat in Key West, Florida.

Reece Hirsch’s debut legal thriller THE INSIDER was published by Berkley Books in May 2010.  Reece is a partner in the San Francisco office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius specializing in privacy, security and healthcare law.  He is also a member of the board of directors of 826 National, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that conducts writing programs for young people in underserved communities.

Kate White is the veteran editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, and also a critically acclaimed author of both fiction and nonfiction books, including9 Secrets of Women Who Get Everything They Want, Lethally Blond, andHush. White currently resides in Manhattan with her husband and two children. Her New York Times bestselling thriller Hush is just out in paperback.

J.N. Duncan, living and working away in the state of Ohio, is a writer of dark, urban-fantasy-suspense. His first novel, published by Kensington, will be out in April, 2011.

Critics describe Weyman Jones‘ latest novel as “a great thriller filled with action and misdirection.” Author of three previous thrillers, he has also written written award-winning historical novels for children and a non-fiction book on computers that was republished in several languages.

Tracy March writes about ethical dilemmas in unethical times. As a former pharmaceutical sales executive, Tracy draws inspiration from her experiences and encounters in the medical field and her love/hate relationship with politics. Look for GIRL THREE, Tracy’s debut thriller set in Washington, D.C., in June 2011. Tracy lives in Yorktown, Virginia, with her husband who works for NASA. They recently experienced two years living in D.C, where they discovered enough drama to inspire a lifetime of stories.

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  1. Joseph Kannon writes historical thrillers in an elegant, literary style that I admire. Michael Connelly is that rare series author who can keep the same protagonist paying the price of one dilemma after another but ever fresh and plausible, as does P.D. James.

  2. All the usual suspects inspire me as a mystery and thriller writer. In fact, this past weekend I read Stephen King’s novella Big Driver in his new book, Full Dark, No Stars, just because I needed some remedial help in pacing and my friend the writer John Searles had recommended it. I had to stop reading at one point because I felt so wigged out. He doesn’t rush things, just a nice and steady build-up of terror. But I also find that different genres can be amazingly inspiring. Manhunt, James Swanson’s book about the 12-day search for John Wilkes Booth, is a pulse pounding read, the ultimate thriller. And though Sue Miller is a literary writer, so many of her books leave me out of my mind with suspense, particularly While I Was Gone. It’s one of my favorite mysteries of all time.

  3. Different books inspire me at different times, but I’m admittedly not one who rereads books very often at all. So, even most of my favorite books, have not been read more than books I felt ‘meh’ about. I just continue to remember the books I find inspiring. Inspiring books stick with you, coming up again and again as comparison or to point out things, whether in your writing, reading other books, or sometimes life in general. I treasure these stories when I find them.

    My first, would be Stephen Donaldson’s “Covenant” series. This series got me hooked on fantasy, back in the days when Dungeons and Dragons first began, and inspired me to want to write. Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” books, I find to be the definition of an epic story. I love epic stories and the lone, tortured hero. I’m also a fan of strange, supernatural things, and King is such a master of that. Back to fantasy again with George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice series. Never have I been so drawn into such a grand feast of the imagination. They probably nudge out King for my “Lost on a deserted island” books. Very close to these is Jacqueline Carey’s, Kushiel books. Such an emotive writer.

    My most recent inspiration is any of the three books by Tana French. Every once in a while you find a writer who just gels with how the voice in your head likes to read. Every thing she writes works. She’d make the making of a p.b.&j worth rereading. I honestly, very seldom find an author who makes me just want to spend hours reading. Tana does that. She makes me want to write better.

  4. The obvious author who inspired me to begin my own writing was Edgar Rice Burroughs. Enough said about him last time. There are others: Ray Bradbury, for prose that is practically poetry. Richard Matheson, for some of the most memorable stories I’ve ever read. Stephen King, because…he’s Stephen King. Dean Koontz, for just about everything he wrote before the late ‘90s. Thomas Harris, for his first two Lecter novels. (RED DRAGON is one of the few books I ever read twice.) Elmore Leonard, for his quirky characters, and for dialogue so outstanding I can use it as a teaching tool. JRR Tolkien. (Need you ask why?) Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, for giving me the willies. And Christopher Paolini, who is young enough to be my grandkid but inspires me to have hope that there are still some compelling writers yet to come.

  5. Edgar Rice Burroughs. I can remember reading his Tarzan series underneath the covers with a flashlight when I was ten and eleven. He certainly had a way of transporting my young mind to the wilds of Africa.

    Likewise, Stephen King’s writing can be both workmanly and elegant, while sustaining his effectiveness. Hearts in Atlantis is a perfect example of this. I find it to be one of his best novellas.

    But my love of writing began with Ray Bradbury. I’ve talked about this so often, I feel as if you all have heard it before, so forgive me if you have. I was in tenth grade, sitting through French class, bored out of my mind and reading through our English reader. There was a story in the book called The Sound of Summer Running, which was a predecessor to his great bildungsroman Dandelion Wine.

    I think that the sole greatest importance that Dandelion Wine offers to the cannon of great writing is that it is a thesis on living. The most captivating idea for me as both a young adult and an adult was the notion that the main character, Douglas Spalding, believed that by owning a pair of brand-new Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Shoes it could change his life. I’ve never looked at tennis shoes the same way since. Even now in my middling years, I can stare into a shoe store window wondering how much faster I could run, or how much higher I could jump, or how much better my life would be if only I owned those pair of shoes resting magically behind the glass. It’s a simple thing, but there are leagues of depth in the idea that a mere pair of shoes can change how we interact with the world. The shoes are of course a metaphor, and to that end, Dandelion Wine is really about the idea of living, for it was in this special summer that Douglas realized that he was not just existing but alive.

    I wanted to be a writer who could make people think about things once they put away the book. I wanted my words to resonate, just as Burroughs words did with me and King’s do as well.

  6. ITW Roundtable Feb. 7, 2011

    Living in Key West, Ernest Hemingway had to inspire me, obviously. But his works inspired me to read more than to write, while I was still in that great American institution, high school. If Hemingway inspired me, it was to work on short stories and live an interesting, full life. I’ve tried and have had moderate success.
    James Lee Burke, especially his Dave Robicheaux series, has been a great inspiration. I first read Heaven’s Prisoners and there is a scene in the book where Dave goes outside looking for the bad guys and leaves his wife alone. I surprised myself because I was literally saying aloud, don’t go, and don’t go . . . The writing was so good, I was there in the room. I was also captured and became a fan after that book and have read everything he has written. You can’t read Burke without tasting the foods of New Orleans, feeling its heat and when he moves onto New Iberia, another parish or the bayou, your feet are wet, you are slapping at mosquitoes, and experiencing the aromas, tastes and humidity of the place.
    Robert Crais’ series on Elvis Cole and Joe Pike does the same thing for me. You read Crais, you walk the streets, and hills of Los Angeles, see the poverty and excess, and meet the people living that lifestyle. The bad guys are damn bad and the good guys seem damaged but determined, as are Cole and Pike.
    Tom Corcoran’s series is set in Key West and he is able to capture both the old Keys and the not so well liked new Keys in his writing about the daily life and trails of Alex Rutledge. He captures the atmosphere of Key West and the other islands so well. Tom is a friend and I envy his talent.
    The first writer to influence me one-on-one was the late Dennis Lynds, as master short story writer and novelist. I think Dennis’ series, written as Michael Collins, about a one-armed private eye – Dan Fortune – was a brave move forward in the mystery field. Has anyone written a successful series about a disabled PI? A PI with only one arm! Dennis not only made Fortune believable, but his series was successful in a field where readers were looking for tough guy leads! And he moved Fortune from the gritty streets of New York to the sunny, deceptive oceanfront of Santa Barbara, California.
    These writers inspire me because they are good at their craft. There is a lot of work going into their plots and characters that make their stories exciting and believable. I don’t strive to be better than these writers – or better than many writers out there – but I do want to find in my writing that nut of success in presenting a place, its people and its true atmosphere as real, something these writers do so well. They make it look easy, but you and I know better.
    Being listed anywhere with these writers is a dream of mine, and it keeps me striving to succeed and, maybe, it makes me write a little better.
    By no means is this short list the only writers I admire, read, or want to be on a list with. I look up from my desk or turn, gaze behind my chair, and see bookshelves filled with books by authors I favor and hope that one day someone will have my books on a bookshelf.

  7. I have to give a shout out to J.N. for sharing my writer’s crush on Tana French. She made her debut after I began writing seriously. The first book I read of hers was actually her second, and my favorite of hers, The Likeness.

    While I have read many wonderful writers and many captivating tales, few have compelled me to stop mid-paragraph, re-read a passage, allow it to seep into my psyche, then marvel at the beauty of the prose–all in the midst of a mystery. Truly (awe) inspiring.

    And in a whiplash switching of gears, I am also inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne, particularly by The Scarlet Letter. I love a writer who can teach a lesson without preaching–the ultimate in show versus tell. What a chilling portrait of the human condition that still holds up today.

    Weston, I love your interpretation of Dandelion Wine and the metaphor of the shoes. I also relate to your desire to be a writer who can make people think about things once they put away the book. It’s a noble (and daunting) pursuit!

  8. I know what you mean. It would be thrilling to find out that you made a reader consider things you wrote long after they put the book down. I remember how much I thought about Presumed Innocent after I finished it. Partly because the identity of the killer was such a freaking jolt for me. But I think books also stay with you when they trigger a flashback to very visceral moments in your own life–like discovering, as Turow’s protagonist Rusty does, that something you perceived about your life was very wrong. Of course, I was nine months pregnant when I read the book and so part of my obsession with it could be blamed on hormones gone wild.

  9. It’s wonderful to hear about everyone’s inspirations. What a great way to find new books.

    I’m going to start by mentioning two writers who never fail to thrill, entertain and inspire me.

    Ruth Rendell has been writing for nearly fifty years. I think of her as having two careers. One writing the Inspector Wexford series. And the one that fascinates me, writing dark, psychological novels that mine the the quirks, neuroses and psychopathology of Englishmen and women from every walk of life. She has such an assured and gripping style. There are few writers working today that I can think of that can both make you laugh and feel terrified when she slips on her character’s mantle of madness.

    I am so pleased to have recently discovered the Scottish writer Louise Welsh. Especially her first novel, The Cutting Room. Her work is not easy to fit into a box. It is certainly genre but the elegance of the writing combined with one of the most unlikely heroes I’ve ever encountered makes for an novel that I recommend to everyone. I continually ask myself, How does she do it? And how long does it take?

    I can’t help but also mention Virgil. I’m in a book group that is reading The Aeneid right now. I’ve been struck again and again by how modern it feels. Aside from the absolute beauty of the language, it is truly a ride — you just don’t want to put it down.

    I often think about what makes a book “work” for me. Plot alone — at least in most cases — isn’t enough. I also want characters who are not “types” — they can be familiar but I want them to surprise, to be full of the contradictions and subtleties that comprise real people.

    I’m wondering, too, are there writers you read who are so good that instead of them being inspiring they can be crippling? I’ve also been thinking about how I’ve changed as a reader since I’m fully entrenched in writing novels. Do you find yourselves analyzing technique as you’re reading? Does it get in the way of your enjoyment or enhance it? I find that there are some writers that I intend to analyze but they are so assured that I keep getting carried away by the story.

  10. I’m a sucker for character-driven novels, which makes me a huge fan of Paul Theroux, Hilma Wolitzer, Pat Conroy, Sue Miller, Anne Tyler. They really know how to draw you into their characters’ lives, their thoughts, the experiences that shaped them, their motivation for what they do, etc. My secondary list would include Jonathan Franzen and Wally Lamb.

  11. That’s a great list, Tracey. Thanks for reminding me of Anne Tyler — she’s one of my favorites too — just brilliant. I haven’t read Franzen yet except for an excerpt from his latest in the NYTs — he would probably fall into the category of “I’m blind with jealousy that I can’t do that.”

  12. I have to agree with you, Kate. I was so moved by Presumed Innocent. I love those types of endings, where you, the reader, are left reeling along with the main character. It takes a great deal of talent to write such a surprising and gripping ending. I hate to be intrigued by a tightly woven mystery/thriller and then the ending disappoints. I think about that after I put down the book, but not for the reasons most authors would want!

    Amy, yes, since I have been writing, reading is a totally different enterprise. Sometimes I wish I could shift gears into reverse (into my pre-writing brain) and just immerse myself in the story, yet that is difficult. I know I have found a must-read author when I forget the mechanics of the story and find myself swept away.

  13. Tracy, your comment about the disappointing ending is provocative. I just finished SOLAR by the award-winning Ian McEwan. A subtle, engrossing novel that doesn’t end — it just quits. That seems to be a contemporary literary fashion, which I think may have begun with JD Salinger. Those of us who like mysteries and thrillers insist on a resolution that pays off the conflicts and reflects the theme of the narrative. But it can’t be pat or obvious. Beyond those abstractions, I can’t define it. Can you?

  14. Tracey — I mostly enjoy the analytical end of reading. Perhaps, most especially, if I’m not actually enjoying the book, if it seems inept in some way. I find it a good exercise to try to pinpoint where things have gone wrong.

    Very intersting question, Weyman. I think endings are always hard. I agree that it’s necessary in thrillers and mysteries that the resolution be satisfying and fulfill the hallmarks of the genre — it should be logical and resolve, at least, the major plot points. I think it’s interesting, too, how often thrillers will ultimately end with what might be considered an emotional subplot. A romantic, family or psychological element.

  15. This is a stimulating round of virtual conversation. Lots of grist for the mill.

    Amy, your comment about requiring emotional subplots is right on. But I don’t think it’s limited to thrillers. The success or failure of books from all genres are predicated on by at least an A/B plot- A being the primary plot, all encompassing for all characters, and B being the subplot for a specific character, usually the main character. Not only does this allow for a multitextured reading, but it also provides energy during pacing lulls.

    What do I mean by that? Every watch a Michael Bey movie? Sometimes there is so much action you become lulled by it. I’ve seen people fall asleep in Michael Bey movies. How can they when they’re so energetic? It’s because action without respite becomes the status quo and we condition ourselves to it. I think of the A/B as brainwaves. There are crestes and valleys. The action should go up and down. But as the A action is falling, the B subplot can be rising. The use of back and forth defeats the Michael Bey lull. Even better is when you can have a C/D/E/F subplots, but those can be dangerous if carried to far and is subject to the law of diminishing returns.

    What people seem to love about my current novel, a zombie novel heavy with characterization, are the subplots. In a zombie novel the overarching plot is pretty common – zombies run rampant for some reason and begin chowing down on people until they either defeat the zombies or get totally consumed (the end). So it’s the subplots that give a zombie novel power. Get the reader to love your character, then let a zombie eat it. Luckily, I’ve found that most people don’t get too mad at me because the eating of characters is an understood social contract between reader and author.

    Back to thrillers, the first time I consciously began realizing that there were such things as subplots was when I began reading Ludlum and Demille. I was in awe when I realized how many subplots Ludlum could cram into a single story without losing my interest or confusing me. I constantly think back on that moment when writing, just to remind myself the power of B.


  16. As a kid, I was a huge fan of Ray Bradbury. The writing in “Something Wicked This Way Comes” was so dark and evocative that it made a big impression on me. I bonded with Bradbury early on when I was first getting it in my head that I wanted to be a writer.

    Among “literary” writers, I think Robert Stone is amazing. His “Dog Soldiers” is a lightning-paced thriller about a drug deal gone bad that also manages to convey a lot about what happened to the children of the counterculture in the early Seventies.

    For dialogue, you can’t beat Richard Price. On first read, his dialogue always seems utterly naturalistic, but in fact it’s a very heightened version of reality. People don’t necessarily talk like Price characters, but I sure wish they would.

    Other current writers that I admire are Colin Harrison (for the way his corporate thrillers seem to sprawl across the length and breadth of Manhattan), Elmore Leonard (for his sly humor), Don Winslow (for his go-for-broke style) and Daniel Woodrell (for his bleak poetry).

  17. Amy, thanks for mentioning the Inspector Wexford series. It’s so utterly satisfying. As Tracey says, you hate to be disappointed at the end of a delicious mystery, and she rarely disappoints. Nothing comes out of the blue to explain it all, like in a P.D. James mystery. And there are always wonderful clues that you can think back on and realize you stupidly ignored. Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter is really chilling and the ending blows you away. I actually watched Law and Order once and saw they’d ripped off the plot for that episode.
    It’s particularly nice for me to hear about favorite authors this week because I just moderated a panel on social media and that was all about tweets and posts and people talking about the handbags they just bought!!!

  18. Ahhh, we could converse for months about endings! Kate, you hit on something that I sometimes see in all genres—contrived endings—something coming out of the blue to explain it all. Or not.

    As a writer, I feel I owe it to the reader to have respect for the time and emotional space they’ve given me and my characters. Not to pay it off for them would be a breach of contract. As a debut author, I feel this obligation even more so. I don’t want my ending to be the beginning of goodbye. I want the reader to invite me back in sometime, to trust me again.

    And Amy, to your observation that thrillers often end with the resolution of an emotional subplot, I have to agree. At least I think the better ones do. After all of the suspense and excitement, it’s the emotional connection that makes your story resonate with a reader.

  19. Pretty much everyone you all have mentioned are my favorite authors. Clearly they are able to tap into something primal that lives in all of us. Among some of my favorites I include Joe Haldeman, Joe Lansdale, and Cormac McCarthy. I recently discovered Rafael Yglesias. Just a stunning novelist. I also read Richard Lange’s new crime novel This Wicked World. If he keeps it up, he’ll become one of my favorite writers too.

  20. Sorry to be chiming in late, everybody–I’m still on book tour in the Pacific Northwest, and had difficulty getting WiFi to work properly!

    Reece mentioned Ray Bradbury — one of my favorite authors in any genre. I’d also add (of course) Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, Ross MacDonald, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and Nathanael West to that list.

    As a teenager, I devoured mainly Brit Lit and was heavily influenced by Thomas Hardy, particularly in his handling of setting … I was also really captivated by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, particularly William’s lyricism.

    That brings me to one of the strongest inspirations on my writing: poetry. I grew up reading poetry from Martial to e.e. cummings, translated ancient Greek and Latin verse as a classics scholar, and still write the occasional poem from time to time.

    Voice, rhythm, and diction–the nuts and bolts of the lyrical–are deeply inspiring to me.

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