A question I’m frequently asked is, “When did you become a writer?” I usually answer with one of my favorite quotes (no idea who said it): “You aren’t a writer because you write; you write because you’re a writer.” In other words, writing isn’t something you do but something you are. Writers must write.
Now, people don’t always know they’re writers. Some, like me, began writing as soon as we put crayon to paper. We adored stories and wanted to create our own. Others began writing as adults, perhaps as the result of an experience they felt compelled to relate or a plot idea that simply demanded to be told. One thing I know: once you start writing, you’re never the same, and you can never go back. There are certain things you can never do again. Here are my top five:
1. Read a book purely for the story
I’ve always been a reader, mostly British classics, historical biographies, and crime fiction. During lunch hours at my first job, I read biographies of all the British monarchs, straight through, beginning with Boadicea. Then I went on to read Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Angela Thirkell, and just about all the members of the Detection Club, beginning with Agatha Christie and Cyril Hare and ending with P.D. James. Pure enjoyment. Sadly, those days are gone. Today I read (or listen), not only for the pleasure of a tale well told but also with an eye for how the book was structured and why the author chose it. If there’s a prologue, I want to know the purpose. How does the author use setting, theme, metaphors, and action beats? What do the words look like on the page? I track clues and red herrings. I look for “Easter eggs”—the allusions writers hide in their books for fans to find, like a wink. Part of my brain is always focused on the craft of writing and what I can learn.
2. Conquer the impulse to correct poor writing and grammar
Ever heard of GPS? No, I don’t mean the Global Positioning System. GPS also stands for “Grammar Pedantry Syndrome,” the unsolicited (and unwelcome) impulse to correct the mistakes people make in spelling, syntax, and grammar. Most writers I know suffer from the syndrome. We usually conquer it because it’s rude and we’re basically nice people. But make no mistake—we do correct these things silently in our heads. The inner editor in us simply won’t shut up.
3. Enjoy an actual vacation
I don’t mean I don’t enjoy travel anymore. I do. Seeing the world is one of my passions. But as an author, I can never travel again without the eyes, ears, and mind of a writer. I can never travel again without observing people—how they move, talk, interact—and considering what trouble I might make for them in a book. I can never again see a place without taking note of the colors and textures around me, the sounds and smells, the feel and ambiance of that place, tucking them away in a mental folder called “Setting.” I can never again walk along a city street or drive through the countryside without asking myself “What if…?” And, if I’m honest, without wondering what would happen if we stumbled upon a body. I know, I know.
4. Ignore other people’s conversations
Most people call it eavesdropping. Writers call it research. Listening to how people actually speak to each other is the best preparation I can think of for writing dialogue. Not that we reproduce the words in precise detail. As my friend and fellow writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins said [https://www.missdemeanors.com/lets-talk-a-few-thoughts-about-dialogue-by-andrew-welsh-huggins/):
“Imitating actual conversation on the page can be a recipe for disaster since even the greatest orators fill their thoughts with countless uses of “you know?”, “um,” “okay,” and more. Creating realistic dialogue is a matter of conveying ideas the way people might talk, absent all the usual tics, not the way they do.”
Still, especially when you’re in a culture not your own, listening (eavesdropping if you insist) is the best way I know to understand the idioms, dialects and rhythms of the words people actually use every day. And the conversations you overhear can be very entertaining. In an airport, an elderly couple from New York City were arguing about the boarding pass he’d mislaid:
Wife (trying to help): “What about that pocket?”
Husband (irritated): “That’s where I keep all the useless papers.”
I still can’t think of it without laughing out loud.
5. Leave writing behind for good
I’ve often joked that if I weren’t writing books, I’d be sewing or knitting. The truth is I’d still be writing something. Maybe angry letters to the editor. I think I’d best stick to novels.
Author Connie Berry
Connie is the USA Today and Amazon Best-Selling author of the Kate Hamilton Mysteries, set in the UK and featuring an American antiques dealer with a gift for solving crimes. Her debut novel, A Dream of Death, won the IPPY Gold Medal for Mystery and was a finalist for the Agatha Award and the Silver Falchion. Her latest, The Shadow of Memory, was a finalist for the Edgar’s 2023 Lilian Jackson Braun award.
Besides reading and writing mysteries, Connie loves history, foreign travel, cute animals, and all things British. She lives in Ohio and Wisconsin with her husband and adorable Shih Tzu, Emmie.