Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Finders Keepers

I’m a little behind the times in my reading, I think. I’ve just picked up a couple of books in Harlequin’s “The Famous Firsts Collection,” which I gather started earlier this year. All the authors have gone on to be published in hardcover single title, and when I saw the names of a couple of old favourites I couldn’t resist. I don’t think I read these particular stories the first time they were published back in the 80s, so it’s a chance to see whether they’ve held up over time as a classic should–that’s the kind of book I want to write.

I don’t mean literary classic--although what the hey, why not, eh?–but a story that a reader can enjoy now, and years from now. Kind of like the Bugs Bunny/Wile E Coyote and the Road Runner/Rocky and Bullwinkle reruns I still smile at. It will be interesting to see if I feel that way about the Famous Firsts I’ve bought. So I’ve been thinking about what makes a romance a classic–or more accurately, a keeper, for me since my keepers may not be generally recognized as classics, and the discussion of what makes a “classic” would require considerable research.

First are the characters. I don’t keep every romance I read (I know of some people who seem to, though), and when I do it’s primarily because of the characters. My own stories are character driven, so that’s not surprising. I don’t envision events or plot when I first get an idea for a book so much as I do a person–male or female–or their situation. And then I struggle to work out the story question, action, etc. So although I may not remember character names, when I review the old keepers on my shelf and refresh my memory by reading the back blurbs, I can picture the characters in my mind and remember something about them. It won’t necessarily be their physical characteristics, more their personality, or personal background.

For example, Mary Jo Putney’s historical romances are among my favourites, and when I think of them I remember the heroine who was of mixed Asian and Caucasian parents who was a martial arts expert for all that she appeared delicate, and another who had been the English slave of an East Indian warlord. Some of Mary Balogh’s characters, too, remain in my mind: the soldier who married a woman thinking he was dying and could provide her with his estate, then lived; the reconnaissance soldier who sacrificed himself to torture at Spanish hands so his brother could escape; the proud aristocrat who financed her former governess’s school anonymously to make up for poor past behaviour; and so on. As you see, for me story situation or background, rather than resolution, is tied to my memories of characters, which brings me to the second element of what makes a story memorable for me: the set up.

By set up I refer to the general situation that leads to the story in the first place. That comes to mind when I think of the stories I keep, and do reread. Although I won’t keep a book if the plot doesn’t carry through on the initial promise, or the resolution isn’t realistic and satisfying, I won’t always, or even often, remember the overall story action a few years down the line (handy for renewing a pleasurable read when one goes back to a book). I do remember interesting or unique situations. For example, one of Janet Dailey’s books for Harlequin in the late 70s/early 80s involved a man who was almost the hero in two of her prior books and who falls in love with a woman who was an anti-heroine in yet another of her prior stories. Miranda Lee set a series of six Harlequins around the opal industry based on the lost daughter of two powerful rivals in that industry. And Justine Dare/Davis set up a fantasy series where the first hero was a sex slave.

There are countless others, of course, and not every book can be a keeper (I read and enjoy many that aren’t, thank goodness–where would I put them all?). That being said, as a writer, and thus reader, I think it makes sense to understand not just my own preferences, but also what makes a keeper for other readers, if only on the premise that if I shoot for the stars but land on the moon I’m still further ahead. So what makes you put a book on read again shelf rather than the trade/recycle pile? What makes you want to go back to it again sometime, sooner or later?


Hazel said...

I don't have a to-be-traded or recycled pile. I keep books, period. Unless I am forced to downsize, as in a move. Then I have a huge mourning period that I go through, with regrets that last for years when I think of a book that I no longer have. And yes, I have boxes of books that I don't have room for on my shelves.

I think my love affair with books is based on two things: I really do think that I will some day read them again (tho I rarely do), and for the connection I feel with their authors, thus my 'addiction' to getting books signed.

Big plug for the Festival of Words in Moose Jaw, now only 10 days away. This is an annual event which brings authors and lovers of books together for an extended weekend for readings, discussions, and mingling. So it is possible to say, looking at the books of poetry, fiction, etc. on my shelves, "I know her [him] from Festival of Words."

In answer to your specific questions about what would cause me to re-read a book (now that I've had my rant about all my books being 'keepers') ...
I agree that it is a character that normally sticks in my mind, someone who leaves an indelible impression after the specifics of the action/plot fade away. When I am left with the feeling that I would like to get in touch with that person again, as if she/he were a friend that I've lost touch with.

Examples? I must have known Anne in my earlier life, tho I have never been to PEI; I got to know Scarlet O'Hara when I was 10 years old reading Gone with the Wind, and I've never forgotten her; in the case of Jane Austen's books, it's Jane herself that I feel I know; same with Carol Shields, tho I never met her.

Setting is very important for me, too. I like to immerse myself in locales I know, but also to explore the places I may never actually visit. Some of the romance novelists who have captured familiar places rather well, therefore I would re-visit their books, include Margot Dalton, Judith Duncan, and currently, C.J. Carmichael. All western Canadian writers, I think.

I love the way you have presented your thoughts on the 'keepers' in your reading life, Molli. Of course, we all have our own take on this, so it will be interesting to hear what others have to say. Good topic for the summer reading period. I just might pick up some of my oldies for a dip into past pleasures.

Ban said...

'I don’t envision events or plot when I first get an idea for a book so much as I do a person–male or female–or their situation. And then I struggle to work out the story question, action, etc.'

Molli, that is soooo me !
Honestly I've got more books stored upstairs in boxes than I should. I really need to weed through them but part of me feels attached to the books I read, even those that aren't so good. That's one of the reasons I don't borrow from the library - once I read a book I feel like it's a part of me. (sometimes the bad ones feel like flaws :D ) Anyway, the ones I display are the ones that have touched me somehow. Yes that sounds vague but how better to explain ... If I connect with the characters, feel like I want to visit the world the author has created, found the story itself compelling.
It's different for each one though, like you, I prefer those with memorable characters.
There are not too many that I have re-read, and I wonder often if those I read long ago will stand up to my memory (maybe that's one of the reasons I've kept them on the shelf) but that's also because I've got so many YET to read :D

Jana Richards said...

Hi Molli,
I'm with Hazel and ban and admit that I have way too many books. I had a garage sale this spring, but couldn't make myself get rid of many of them.

What makes me keep a book and reread it? The characters of course. An interesting, well-drawn character will keep me coming back. A great plot will also intrigue me, mainly because I keep wondering "How did she do that?" I think one thing that really keeps me coming back for more is emotion. A writer like Mary Balogh or Suzanne Brockman who can really make me feel something is a writer whose books I'll keep.


Suse said...

Hi Molli, I can't agree with you and Ban more on how a book comes to me. It's always the character (male or female) or the character in a particular situation that begins my stories. And I suppose because of that, those are the types of books that will be my keepers - those stories whose characters are so interesting and/or their stories are so compelling that I don't want to walk away when I've finished reading the book. Some characters I miss as if I had known them as a real person.

Also as Jana mentioned, I also enjoy stories that draw out emotions in me - any writer who has made me laugh or cry or care has my admiration.

My hope is that I can create stories that make readers want to come back to my characters. I wish for my stories to be keepers as well.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Molli, like Hazel I keep everything. There are some things I wouldn't lament the loss of, though. I like to keep everything I read, a sort of personal library, but I have some series that declined over time and I stopped buying the rest. I probably won't reread them either.

My absolute keep-even-when moving, reread books are ones that make an impact on me, that offer something I want to go back and revisit. Sometimes that can be character or a really neat premise (I tend to revisit my thief/assassin books). Others I'll reread for the narrative voice or the prose, getting to know the author rather than the characters, or for some less identifiable combination of things that touches one of those 'primal cores' and just makes me want to go back and experience that again. A mix of the characters, what they go through, and the plot that causes it. There are some of course, that I absolutely love but likely won't read again... or at least not for a looong time.

I had a bunch of kids books I loved, and I think a lot of them have been lost or left behind over the years, which I really hate. Amid family moves I've lost track of my James Howe books and some other favourites, that may have been given away by now, or else ended up moldy.

Janet said...

Hey, Molli! I have my top ten books that I keep. OK, I've added to that, but not by very many only because we move around and lugging books takes too much space. I'm also not a re-reader. I'd rather go on to something new and exciting, discover a new author. There's too many books on my TBR pile for me to re-read something. So for keepers, it's the authors' names I keep in a little book of books that goes everywhere with me. I write down the author and then when I've read one of her books, I write down the title. I also keep a space in the book for recommendations, either from blogs, friends, relatives, or reviews.

And I think characters play a huge role for me - because I start out my stories with characters.

Great post, Molli. And some great comments here, too.

Molli said...

Hello everyone, and thanks for taking time to comment on your keepers.

Ban and Suse, I'm glad to have company in my story approach--it's always nice to know I'll have good company in my struggles. Hazel, I tend to undervalue setting in my stories, so thanks for the reminder. Jana and Suse, I like your comments on emotion and keeping the writers who draw it out; when I think about my keepers that's a common factor in most of them, and certainly in the longer books.

Hazel, your comment on rereading a book when you want to "get in touch with that person again", and Ban, yours about visiting "the world the author has created", is exactly what I want my readers to feel.

Hayley, I hadn't considered the aspect of rereading to get to know the author through the narrative or prose--interesting... I know I've come to conclusions about some of my favourite authors through reading a number of their books, but haven't gone back to take a closer look. I can appreciate your comments on favourites from childhood--some of mine have gone missing and I have to say that a couple of the ones I still have are a little on the "aromatic" side.

Molli said...

Hi Janet--read your comment just after I posted mine. I applaud anyone who can keep their bookshelf down to 10 (or so), and honestly I don't know which I have more of: keepers or to be read-ers. I too have a list of favourite authors; I include the book titles I've read so I don't double up when I'm scouring used book stores for older titles. but I haven't made space for recommendations, etc., so thanks for the tip.