Top Ten Writing Influences

A common interview question for writers is, Who were your literary influences? I’ve given it some thought over the years and have come up with a list of my top ten. Here they are, in no particular order:
Franklin W. Dixon
This was, of course, the cover name for the Hardy Boys series. Several authors did the actual work (a Canadian named Leslie McFarlane was the first). From The Hardy Boys I learned that you could make readers read on by ending a chapter with an exclamation point! Today I don’t use the actual punctuation mark, but try to achieve the same feeling—so readers have to turn the page.
The Classics Illustrated comic books guys
I loved the old Classics Illustrated series. I got acquainted with much great literature that way. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Men of Iron and on and on. Beautifully illustrated and written. I learned pure storytelling from these little gems.
Edgar Rice Burroughs
My first “grown up” novel was Tarzan of the Apes. I loved the experience of being pulled into a big story and then not wanting it to end.
William Saroyan
My beloved high school creative writing teacher, Mrs. Marjorie Bruce, encouraged me to read more than sports biographies. At a book fair she got me to buy My Name is Aram, which is still one of my favorite collections of short stories. I love Saroyan’s whimsical voice.
Ernest Hemingway
In college, Hemingway knocked me out. I think he is the greatest short story writer who ever lived. His style is easy to satirize, but no one has ever been able to do it better—not even the lionized “minimalists” of current fashion. I am very proud to have been a semi-finalist one year in the Imitation Hemingway Contest.
Jack Kerouac
I think most college guys who are into literature go through a Kerouac phase. I ate up On the Road and Kerouac’s idea of  “be-bop prose rhapsody.” Even now I try to follow some of his writing techniques, like:
–  Submissive to everything, open, listening
–  No time for poetry but exactly what is
–  Believe in the holy contour of life
Raymond Chandler
Oh man, when I discovered Chandler, I was in heaven. Still the best prose stylist of any hard boiled school you want to name. Nothing more needs to be said.
John D. MacDonald
Storyteller supreme. Great stylist of “unobtrusive poetry.” I’m thinking mainly of his 50s stand alone novels. The Travis McGees are enjoyable on their own and have much to commend them. But his output before that was amazing and the top quality of the paperback writers of the day.
Dean Koontz
I learned a lot from Koontz about how to write a flat-out page turner. Koontz also wrote a superb book on the craft, How to Write Bestselling Fiction. It’s out of print and goes for about $200 on the open market. I got mine off a library giveaway shelf and still refer to it.
Stephen King
King puts it all together. A great stylist, plotter and character creator. I read King and sometimes just shake my head at how good he is. Please don’t bring up the fact that he also sometimes seems to be the king of F-bombs. He succeeds in spite of, not because of, that little fact.
So writers out there, who are some of your writing influences? What is it about them you like?
If you’re primarily a reader, what writer would you pick as someone you’d recommend to a writer to learn from?

27 thoughts on “Top Ten Writing Influences

  1. I must also include “Franklin W. Dixon” too. The earliest books I read (and still read) that demonstrate the strong power of family in fiction and the never-ending allure of mystery and adventure. To this day, it does my heart good to read those scenes when Fenton appears and you “hear” that happy cry of “Dad!” when he shows up. That is just too cool.

    Zane Grey—the finest master of description who above all authors could transport me away to a different world. “Forlorn River” remains my all time favorite.

    Anna Sewell (Black Beauty) Probably one of the earliest books I read that invoked powerful emotions in me (and showed me the powerful use of words) and exposed me to the cruelty of man to animals and to people.

    Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) Still amazed how an author can captivate me for 900 pages using a lead character I didn’t even like…

    Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), Nancy E. Turner (These Is My Words), Margeurite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague). The list continues to evolve. After a four month marathon I just finished Tolstoy’s War and Peace. To me, his particular strength was capturing the minutiae of the workings of the human mind—it’s bizarreness, it’s manipulative nature (that we don’t like to admit we have).

  2. Brilliant question and advice. I would have to agree with Stephen King. His grittiness is something I strive for. The humor and human honesty of Connie Willis is also amazing to me. Wallace Stegner and Norman Maclean–if I could write sentences as beautiful as theirs, I would consider myself a writer. I adore how Russian writers (Tolstoy already mentioned, and I would add Dostoevsky) can get in your head so well. Cormac McCarthy somehow always takes my breath away. Also, perhaps because I’m a hopeless romantic, I cannot get enough of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. I adore how they make matters of the heart so central, intense and intriguing.

    Thanks again for this awesome advice!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  3. This post makes me ask what is the correlation between what I read and what I want to write.

    I know as a reader I long for historical epics—big sweeping stories that involve a lot more than just the relationship between a couple people. The kind of book that is so big, so emotionally draining, you’re physically and mentally tired when you are finished, but satisfied. As I was when I finished War & Peace.

    As much as I love writing, I think if I could just write that one huge (I don’t mean in financial terms) historical epic (in my case set in 19th century America), I could walk away from writing and never look back, satisfied that I came, I saw, I conquered.

    Maybe everybody feels that way. Maybe nobody does. But it’s what compels me to push on, whether the notion is rediculous or not–that drive to see if, during my lifetime, I’m capable of doing it. And even if I don’t, it’s a worthy challenge to myself to try.

  4. Great list, James.

    I too started with the Hardy Boys and I don’t know if anybody here remembers the old Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators created by Robert Arthur.

    My other early reading habits included the Lew Archer series by Ross MacDonald and everything written by Alistair MacLean, the author of such great novels as The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare.

    I couldn’t agree more with you on Dean Koontz and Stephen King. Master storytellers. And I would be remiss not mentioning my love for Clive Cussler. While many might suggest his line-by-line writing leaves something to be desired, I believe he is a master at plotting & pace and telling a good, old fashion, intriguingly fun story.

  5. BK,

    Might I suggest, if you hadn’t already read them, the Kent Family Chronicles by John Jakes. A sweeping, 8 book series following generations of a single family throughout the history of America.

  6. BK, those are some good names you include. Gone With the Wind was the first “big” novel I remember reading. My dad was in the movie (an extra, wounded confederate solider) so we had a nice hardcover in living room. I remember loving it.

    I also like the big historical novel. The Winds of War by Herman Wouk and Shogun by James Clavell come to mind.

  7. Franklin Dixon’s alter ego, Carolyn Keene, was my first literary inspiration. The best birthday present of my life was when I got a huge box of Nancy Drews. Years later I learned that the books were written by contract writers–in fact, in the 1990’s I was recruited to write some Nancy Drews. I wound up writing four of them. That’s how I got my start writing fiction.

    James Michener was another early inspiration. He wasn’t a great stylist, but an amazing storyteller. I read The Source in the sixth grade, and couldn’t put it down.

    Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, H. G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Daphne du Maurier (for The Birds and Rebecca), Edgar Allan Poe–each author had an impact on me at various stages of my life. Ah, now I want to go back and do some rereading from my library!

  8. I actually purchased PLOT AND STRUCTURE because I flipped through it at the book store and noticed you quoted Koontz a couple times. I figured, if you used Koontz as an example, I could probably learn quite a bit from you. I was right.

    Ditto on MacDonald and Chandler. And in terms of plot twists and exciting reading, I definitely consider Jeffery Deaver a go-to source. His stories are hit-and-miss with me, but several of them are amazingly crafted.

    And I have to second Kathryn on Edgar Allen Poe. My granddad introduced me to him when I was in junior high, and I read a few of his stories every year.

  9. This was great Jim. I hadn’t thought about it recently but INFLUENCE is the word. I was greatly influenced by what I was reading.

    Even before Carloyn Keene (and I’m very impressed Kathyrn that you wrote 4 Nancy Drew novels, can you tell us which ones?) and Nancy Drew I fell in love with Alfred Noyes. I discovered this English poet through an aunt of mine when I was very young. I will never forget:

    The Highwayman

    The wind was a torrent of darkness upon the gusty trees,
    The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
    The road was a ribbon of moonlight looping the purple moor,
    And the highwayman came riding–
    The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door.

    No wonder I write historical romance during the Regency with suspense and mystery. It all goes back to Alfred. I’ll have to blog about this one. 🙂 Maybe I’ve just always been attracted to men names Alfred and that’s why I fell for Hitchcock movies.:)

    Jane Austen didn’t come till much later for me. I think I was reading Louisa May Alcott and the Brontes. And imagine my delight when I discovered LMA’s, A Long Fatal Love Chase that she couldn’t get published in her lifetime.

    I also loved Sidney Sheldon, especially, The Naked Face. Mary Higgens Clark, A Cry In The Night, and then of course my current favorite is JAMES SCOTT BELL!

  10. Jillian, you’re very kind. Thanks. And guess what? I remember my dad reading me “The Highwayman” when I was a kid. Love it to this day.

    And good reminder about Sidney Sheldon. He was a storyteller supreme. He has one of my favorite quotes about writing: “The blank page is God’s way of telling you how hard it is to be God.”

  11. Great post, Jim. I’d have to agree with most of your list…King, Chandler, Hemingway, etc.

    When I was a kid, the first real novel I ever read was MOBY-DICK. I read it in school of course, but then reread it on my own a year or so later. It opened my eyes to the vast scope of storytelling. After that, I read other Melville books, but naturally, nothing came close to MOBY-DICK.

    In fact, now that I think about it, this has me fired up to do a similar post on my own website. So off I go.

  12. Great topic, Jim. Thought provoking and fun

    James Kjelgard (sp?) wrote a series of adventures that transfixed me as a childa boy, a dog and outdoors adventures a la Jack London). Under the covers all night with a flashlight as my parents thought that sleep was more important. They were wrong.

    As an adult James Lee Burke’s ability to make you see, feel and smell a setting is magic. His characters are forged of strained sinew and emotional credibility. Clete Pucell is one of the most compelling supportive characters in fiction. I am awed by JLB’s gift.

    An author, new to me, that has blown me away is the South African, Deon Meyer. Wow.

    Any influence of these two on my writing would be a very good thing indeed.
    Thanks for the fun post, Jim.

  13. Wow, Mike. Most kids get Moby in school and resist it. I agree it’s awesome, but I get blowback from some other writers on this. I’m with you, though.

    tjc, good point about Burke. Thanks.

  14. Stephen King for sure, if for no other reason that he inspired me to try my hand at writing.

    John D. McDonald, although for me it was primarily the Travis McGee novels, particularly in that you can get away with a lot of theme and literary-type things without hammering the reader over the head with it.

    And Franklin W. Dixon, for pretty much the same reasons.

    Madeleine L’Engle, especially for “The Young Unicorns” and “The Arm of the Starfish.”

    Later, Elmore Leonard, Jonathan Kellerman and Sue Grafton, but mostly I would have to say Robert B. Parker.

  15. When I was young, I read the Hardy Boys. Like you, Jim, I also got a great exposure to the classics through the illustrated comics. Later on it was Fleming, the king of cool, Clifford D. Simak for flying me to other galaxies, Tolkien and Terry Brooks for immersing me into fantasy worlds, and Cussler for pure adventure. Along the way I greatly enjoyed Jack Higgins and Frederick Forsyth, and defiantly Thomas Harris. Each one of these writers helped me salt and pepper my prose.

  16. Joe, you’ve got eclectic tastes there. Interesting to consider how all that figures into what you write now.

    And Gilstrap makes my earlier point about Moby-Dick! It’s a love/hate thing out there. (I also remember devouring The Godfather and The Exorcist)

  17. FULL DISCLOSURE: This is an edited version of my original post. I realized after posting that I’d put in a major spoiler for one of my favorite horror stories. That spoiler is removed.

    I devoured Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. As much as I loved the Hardy Boys, Jupiter Jones and his buds resonated much better for me. (It’s interesting, don’t you think, the impact of Hardy Boys on those of us of a certain age?)

    Jim Kjelgaard was another big one for me. Sort of a Jack London for younder readers, as I recall.

    As I got older, Alistair McLean was a big influence on me. I loved those adventure stories with all their twists. The bad guy always turned out to be someone we trusted. I loved those books. I wonder if they’d hold up if I read them again.

    Older still and enter Michael Crichton. When I read The Andromeda Strain, I knew I’d stumbled into a whole new world of adventure.

    When I read The Day of the Jackal in high school, I knew I wanted to write a thriller one day. That one book is a text book on tension and plot development. Brilliant.

    Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist both had huge influences on me as a writer. So did Thomas Tryon’s The Other.

    Stephen King, though, is probably the single greatest influence. That guy does things with the language that no other writer can. I don’t always enjoy his stories, but I always love his writing.

    As for the classics–Melville (urgh), Kerouak, Hemmingway and even Chandler and Conan Doyle–none of them have ever resonated with me in a meaningful way. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the stories (okay, I deeply hate Moby Dick (sorry, Mike)), it’s just that the writing always seemed archaic in its own way.

    John Gilstrap

  18. For me it was Louie L’Amour and Hardy Boys as my first novels. Add to that those comic style classics (Invisible Man & Tale of Two Cities were my favorites) and those were my early story telling starts. Then came Don Pendleton, Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins, and Alistair McClean. Then something happened and I was introduced to Douglas Adams as a teen and things got strange for a little while. And now…voila. Here I am, learning to write violent espionage thrillers with an after taste of smoked herring and a nice pinot noir.

  19. John Cheever’s short stories, Salinger, John D. McDonald, Styron, Updike, Doctorow, Heller, Capote, King, LeCarre, Clavell, McCarthy, Percy, Welty, Wolfe, Talese, McMurtry, Koontz, Follett, Forsythe, Steinbeck, and so, so many more.

  20. John G–No need to apologize about MOBY-DICK. Like Jim said, it’s a love-hate thing. And I’ll admit that it was indeed rough sledding most of the time.

  21. Elmore Leonard is one of my favorites. I’m such a dialogue heavy writer, and he is the master of conversation and dialogue between his characters. If my characters could communicate half as well as his do, I’d consider myself a success. I just wish I could transfer humor to my writing the way he does–cool without being obvious. It’s just awesome.

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