Learning from Old Favourites

So you need to write. And you love to read. How do you find time for both? Some people don’t read for pleasure at all while engrossed in a writing project (such self-discipline!) Some limit what they read, steering clear of their own genre – a writer of historical romance might read true crime; an epic fantasy writer might go for biography. There are a couple of reasons for that: not wanting someone else’s style or ideas to rub off on one’s own work, and finding a contrasting genre mentally refreshing, like a mini-vacation.

The issue for me, and probably for most of you, is that I love reading a bit too much, have done since I was a small child hiding away with my library books instead of doing my homework. If I pick up a novel, in particular, I’m likely to become engrossed and let time slip away when I should be spending both my time and my mental energy writing my own book. But these days there’s always a deadline. I don’t have the luxury of chucking the ms in a drawer and forgetting about it while I devour the latest bestseller. Right now I’m juggling commitments in relation to five books: still doing interviews about the one released last month, preparing for another new release in November, checking Australian and American copy edits for a third and trying to get on with writing a fourth, whose deadline is too close for comfort. Book Five is a collection of short fiction, for which I’ve only just finished the last story. Time to read? Not nearly as much as I’d like.

But I do crave a good recreational read, can’t do without it. I’ve posted here before about choices for times like this: classics, YA novels, old favourites. This time I went for the old favourites and learned a couple of things about why some endure and some don’t.
On my bookshelf are four novels by Madeleine Brent. Back in the 70s and 80s when these were first published, they were great favourites of mine. I didn’t know then that the author was actually a bloke. Peter O’Donnell, creator of the Modesty Blaise comic strip, used the pseudonym Madeleine Brent to write nine historical romances between 1971 and 1986. The bio in the books is full of blatant falsehoods!

Popular fiction doesn’t always stand the test of time. The Madeleine Brent novels are all more or less based on the same formula: a young woman is separated in childhood from her family and grows up in an exotic location (Tibet, China, Afghanistan.) She later returns to England, where she has to adapt to what is now an alien culture and solve some kind of mystery that eventually involves going back to the country of her childhood. The stories have a gothic flavour and there’s always an enigmatic man in the mix. Going back to them after a long time, I wondered if I would now find the plots too wildly improbable, the romance cliched or the characterisation dated. Many of the female protagonists in women’s fiction of that era (some of Rosamund Pilcher’s central characters come to mind) could only be described as wet – their degree of naivety is unacceptable to today’s reader.

The good news is that Madeleine Brent fares pretty well after 30-40 years! The novels are all written in first person, and the author not only handles a female viewpoint well, but also creates strong, interesting women protagonists. In that, he is somewhat unusual among male writers of popular fiction – but perhaps it’s not so surprising from the creator of Modesty Blaise! The plots are implausible, but the reader is drawn along by very capable storytelling. We like the characters (fish-out-of-water, courageous heroine; damaged, enigmatic hero; staunch old retainer; powerful antagonist) and we keep turning pages until the protagonist achieves her happy ending. The only Brent novel that doesn’t work for me and never did is the excruciatingly off-kilter Golden Urchin, set in colonial Australia. Even the title is ghastly.

One reason these books remain engaging is that each is narrated in first person by its young female protagonist. 1970s writers of genre fiction could be quite sloppy in their use of point of view – head-hopping was common, as was an intrusive authorial voice. Brent’s consistent use of first person means he avoids these pitfalls completely.

The far-fetched plot lines of Madeleine Brent’s novels are balanced, in most of the books, by sound historical research, an appealing voice and strong characterisation. In fact, the stories are no more ridiculous than some of the scenarios in contemporary popular fiction. This writer knew how to tell a darn good story and keep us engaged throughout. The books are not only entertaining for readers who love historical romance, they remain excellent examples for writers of commercial fiction.

Do you have old favourites in popular fiction? Have they influenced your writing? What qualities keep them fresh and appealing?


About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.


    • says

      Thanks, CG! I’m currently re-reading my own short stories for the collection, but the other projects are certainly looming.

  1. Denise Willson says

    Want to get back to basics? Read old A.A. Milne Winnie the Pooh stories. These classic gems contain all the right elements while holding the attention of toddler and adult reader.

    “Ah, bother….”

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

    • says

      Children’s books are a great idea, Denise, I agree (especially those like Winne the Pooh that work on an adult level too.) I think I’ve mentioned here before how much I love The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo. During this recent busy patch I have also re-read The Secret Garden and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

  2. says

    Really interesting stuff about O’Donnell’s gender switching pseudonym. Thanks for sharing.

    I started rereading some of my old favorites after I had written enough to wonder about my influences. Three in particular I’ve identified are: Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet (89); The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley (82); The Far Pavilions, by M.M. Kay (78).

    In hindsight, I can clearly see how powerfully each of them influenced the my work. And in rereading them, each of them stands up pretty darn well to the test of time. Fun post, Juliet!
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..The Mentor/Mentee Benefit—Writer Unboxed Redirect

    • says

      Oh, yes, The Far Pavilions! The ultimate sweeping, exotic romance – like a more sophisticated version of Madeleine Brent.

    • says

      Here’s where I admit that I have never read a John le Carre novel. That’s a woeful gap in my reading of popular classics which I will address at some point soon. :)

  3. says

    I do the same…my favorites are middle grade novels – Richard Peck, Sharon Creech (the novels in verse) Francis O’Rourke Dowell, Patricia Reilly Giff (the Irish novels), Jerry Spinelli, and Mildred Taylor’s superb trilogy, among many others – and classics such as Jane Austen and George Eliot’s masterpieces.
    Carol Coven Grannick´s last blog post ..Day Twenty Four: Packing for Highlights

  4. says

    I reread Girl of the Limberlost this summer. I was nervous to do so, because another by that author, when revisited through adult eyes, contained such blatant racism I had to throw it away. Some anachronisms interfered with my enjoyment, and some of the elements felt old-fashioned, but it didn’t take long until I understood what had always drawn me to it: love of the natural world; a self-reliant and intelligent female protagonist; that she might be relatively untested, but wouldn’t settle for an easy kind of love; small communities. The fascinating thing is that I believe some of these elements are in my fiction. I hadn’t read the book, expecting to find a mirror.

    Now I’m curious to reread other old favorites. I’ve already dipped back into Mary Stewarts after Sophie’s post. Haven’t been disappointed yet.
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Who’s Got News? This Girl, That’s Who

  5. says

    Wonderful post, especially from the perspective of asking what holds up. When time is tight and the need for reading becomes desperate, I return to children’s books. There’s fun and folly but each re-read peels back new depths. I especially like anything written by Lewis Carroll because his books are unintentional classics, stories told to his niece for amusement yet so rich is literary goodies. When time allows and I need to rest in timeless mastery, I always pick up Mann or Dickens or Shakespeare. Good luck and stamina with your grueling schedule, but congratulations on reaching such a point of abandon to your craft.
    Cyd Madsen´s last blog post ..Roald Dahl’s Outlaw Lap Dance

    • says

      Lewis Carroll, yes – a bit of wry humour never goes astray. Alice in Wonderland is really for all ages! Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is another timeless classic, with the serious and comic interwoven. And there’s a great comfort in returning to books we’ve loved when young.

  6. says

    I have my self-imposed reading time. On my exercise bike and in bed. Sometimes a 3 o’clock break. I agree that Winnie the Pooh holds up over time; I still get misty when Christopher Robin has to tell Pooh he’s going to go to school. And I love when Christopher Robin says what he likes best is doing nothing. “…when people all out at you just as you’re going off to do it, What are you going to do, Christopher Robin, and you say, “Oh, nothing, and they you go and do it.”
    Terry Odell´s last blog post ..WPA #5 — Clearing a Building

    • says

      Wow, Terry, scheduled reading time – that is so orderly! I am more inclined to reward myself for a good day’s writing with an hour’s fun reading in the evening. :)

  7. says

    I wonder if anyone out there has ever read one of my favorite books of all time: ‘The Other Side of the Moon,’ by Meriol Trevor?

    Published in 1957 by Sheed and Ward, it is far more than a children’s story, a story of redemption, consequences, and loyalty.

    She went on to write critically acclaimed biographies of Cardinal Newman and Pope John XXIII.

    But her story of the society on the back side of the moon, and its earth visitors, from their arrival until they must choose between the sweet wine of Melmourion – which makes them forget all they have seen and learned – or Ynasil – which is sharp, but will let them remember, never being able to speak of it – still makes me ache.
    ABE´s last blog post ..Plot holes and Maximus’ dog – Scene Template, Part 1

    • says

      I had forgotten Meriol Trevor but I used to love her books when young. I’m sure I have read this one, I remember them as quite challenging but absorbing. Must look them out again!

  8. says

    One of my favorites, that I read time and time again, is Daughter of the Forest. :-)
    The Little Prince, The Shadow of the Wind, The Thief. They’re all completely different books and genres, but they all touch me in a different way.

  9. Jeanne Kisacky says

    I tend to go back not necessarily to children’s books but books I read when I was younger and loved. Of course since I was into the ‘classics,’ I guess they were already time-tested. The Three Musketeers is a very different book at age 12 than it is at age 40. There is definitely something about being overwhelmed with the world that makes me want a ‘guaranteed’ good read, that’s what makes me turn to re-reading old loves rather than going for something new.

  10. Ray Pace says

    Just saw on Twitter that Erika Robuck just purchased a copy of The Old Man and the Sea. Going back to see how it was done really well is a great strategy. Slaughter House Five, Huckleberry Finn, The Maltese Falcon — all are blueprints and much more. The secrets to great writing are not secrets; they’re all on the pages for all to see. We just have to be aware of what we are reading.

  11. says

    I keep a constant lookout for anything Fannie Flagg (she spins a good yarn) and Barbara Kingsolver write. I went through a Clan of the Cave Bear thing a long time ago, not sure I could reread those though.

    Rereads for me would be the Anne of Green Gables series, The Secret Garden, and maybe, if time allowed, Gone with the Wind.
    Julie´s last blog post ..IWSG: October

  12. says

    I do read a lot no matter what stage of writing I am at – like you, I don’t want to deprive myself of that pleasure. I’ve found that if I am in danger of letting someone influence my style too much, then I should read in a different genre or in a different language or, as so many other commentators suggested, go back to children’s literature.
    MarinaSofia´s last blog post ..Crime Pick of the Month: September

  13. says

    Hi Juliet, Very nice post. I am noticing that many books are now being written in the first person. I wonder if the current reality TV binge is part of that popularity. I agree they are engaging– to really get inside someone’s head–but I prefer the now-becoming-old-fashioned third-party point of view, which highlights one character in particular (protagonist) but has some chapters from other points of view (always in the third party, which allows the narrator to get inside various people’s heads). I think its too simple to only have one point of view; but they are successful, especially of late. I started my novel in the first person but it just didn’t work because my minor characters become pretty major. I hope that switch wasn’t a mistake since the first person narrative books are flying off the shelves. I think Patricia Cornwell masterful at the first person narrative with her protagonist Kay Scarpetta in how she reveals what other characters think (usually by saying what Kay thinks they are thinking by reading of body-language, using former knowledge of the person etc.) AS for time to read, here is a famous quote by one my favorites, Stephen King: if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write. In his Memoir of the Craft he “lets” us count reading as part of our work time as a writer. BE FREE! xo Diana
    Diana Cachey´s last blog post ..Stephen King Tribute — Top Ten Books

    • says

      Interesting comment, Diana! I really think the choice of POV depends on the individual book – the writer chooses what will work best for the kind of story he/she is creating. I wonder if anyone else has noticed the phenomenon you mention, more books in first person with increating popularity?

      I have to say that my writing tends to be more successful when I use first person, and that many of my all-time favourites are written in first person (Jane Eyre is a classic example that would not work nearly so well in third, especially with multiple viewpoints – there’s a particular strength in our getting to know Mr Rochester entirely through Jane’s eyes.) I also greatly admire writers who can do a good tight third, which is something I continue to work on in my own writing. I do think reading tastes change over time and writing styles change with them.

  14. Leslie R. says

    I’ve recently been feeling the urge to go back and read the Anne of Green Gables books. And Little Women. I’ve always found that Anne McCaffery’s dragonrider books reread well also (I used to reread the entire series from start to finish every time I bought a new book – oh to have that kind of time again!).

  15. sue knight says

    Lovely post Juliet, but you are WAY too busy.
    Early writers I loved were Sidney Sheldon, Paullina Simons, James Paterson and Julian May.
    Take care.

  16. says

    Juliet, I thought I was super-odd, but reading the previous comment, I can see I am in good company. I go back to childhood books. My horsy favourites, LM Montgomery, my ballet favourites, Sutcliffe, Treece, Mary Stwewart etc. And I’m always impressed at how those writers wrote for a child/YA. Positive outcomes, tremendous mysteries, beautiful syntax and description and sentences with purpose, ie: not over-edited and shortened to a Twitter-like presentation.

    But the real purpose of reading them while I am writing is pure escapism and self-indulgence. Makes working hard a lot easier!
    prue batten´s last blog post ..A Pocket Full of Posies…

  17. Tiffanie Hancock says

    I read “Mara, Daughter of the Nile” by Eloise Jarvis McGraw when I was in grade-school. Read it again as an adult and loved it as much as the first time. Thanks for the post Juliet. You’ve got me thinking about other books I need to re-read.

  18. Victoria Kerrigan says

    I have just reread Shogun. Incredible novel.

    I obviously have very similar taste to Vaughn; I love The Far Pavilions – I read that last year, – and I go back to the Mists of Avalon often. But then, like Vaughn, I also write epic fantasy, so maybe that’s why our tastes run on the same lines.

    There were books of my childhood that left everlasting marks. One of them was The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge – I read it this year and it is still a treasure… and The Horse Goddess, by Morgan Llywelyn, still and always one of the most wonderful books I have read

  19. says

    Whenever I’m at a loss for what to read, I do have an old stand-by. And as nerdy as it sounds, my old stand-by is The Dark Elf Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore. I don’t read much in the fantasy genre anymore apart from rereading old favorites, but this trilogy is about so much more. I’m afraid sometimes when I go back to read it that the words won’t feel the same, that I’ll find some fault in the author’s style, or I’ll wonder what I ever saw in them to begin with. Instead, each time I reread them I’m filled with a sense of comfort and wonder. They aren’t just stories about elves and ogres and magic, but stories about battling yourself and who you were born to be. They’re stories about inner conflict as much as anything, a man not fitting in and learning to accept who he is.

    My other stand-by novels, I have to say, are your Sevenwaters books. There’s a sense of magic and a sense of home in them that I haven’t find in any other books I’ve ever read. They’ve gotten me through the hardest times in my life, namely when I lost my mother earlier this year. They’re the kind of books I can escape in, and they remind me that even though bad things happen there are still so many different kinds of magic in the world. These books, especially Daughter of the Forest, I never fear to reread. They never get old (though my copies of the first three novels are in desperate need of replacement), and I’m never afraid I’ll feel differently about them. They, like the Dark Elf Trilogy, are books I recommend to people, but never lend out. I keep them always on my bookshelf.
    Jaime´s last blog post ..reading, NaNoWriMo, and things I’ve been meaning to do