Reading whilst writing

aureliaAll writers should read. We all read what we want, what we love, and most writers I know read their friends’ books, but are you reading your genre? Reading other books in your genre lets you know what current writing trends are in your field, what’s popular with readers, and what other writers are up to. But more importantly it’s about staying current in your profession.  A by-product is that you find new reading pleasures, discover new ideas and fresh insights.

Reading the classics in your genre will give you a grounding in how it’s developed. Historical fiction for many, ahem, mature readers means Anya Seton’s Katherine, Jean Plaidy’s Tudor, Plantagenet and Borgia series, Robert Graves’s I, Claudius or Nigel Tranter’s Master of Gray series. Now, Philippa Gregory, Simon Scarrow and Elizabeth Chadwick are the trendsetters with more detailed, gritty and psychological approaches. You have to know where your genre’s been in order to know where it can go.

As I write alternate history thrillers with a Roman theme, I read a wide range in Roman historical, spy and thriller novels as well as alternate history itself: William Boyd, Lee Child, John Le Carré, Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series), Lindsey Davies (Falco), Simon Scarrow, Conn Iggulden, the great Robert Harris (Fatherland, Pompeii), C J Sansom (Dominion and the Shardlake series), to name a few.

And if you’re approaching agents and publishers with your work, they will always want to know if you know how your book compares to others in your genre and how your book is different.

But, if you only read things within your category or genre, you run the risk of developing writer’s blinkers. As your best friend might say if you stay in and do nothing but write, ‘You need to get out more.’

So, if you spread your reading time, what are the benefits?

It will get you thinking in new ways, even inspire you. In genre fiction such as thrillers, plots and characters tend to develop in roughly similar patterns. That’s not to say each novel isn’t unique in its way; it is. But reading a completely different author, such as Jane Austen or Isaac Asimov can spark your creativity and make your brain work in a different way.

You can discover ways to innovate and adapt your writing. Reading outside your genre allows you to compare what you’re reading to your genre. You approach your genre from a different angle, see new possibilities, and find ways to personalize your fiction that other writers in the genre haven’t thought about.

You can take a mental breather. As much as I love alternate history, and I love writing my stories, sometimes I feel inspiration ebbing and need to feed my brain with something different.

You have a mini-adventure. Reading something that’s new and different for you means embarking on a personal journey you’ve never taken before.  In The Road Back by Liz Harris, I not only revisited the 1950s of my childhood, but learnt about Ladakh, northern India, as well as reading a beautifully written love story.

I read non-Roman historic fiction, modern adventure, romance, sci-fi, fantasy—you name it—and it always refreshes my writing brain.

Happy reading!


  1. A very interesting article, Alison. Many thanks for mentioning my novel, The Road Back, in your discussion.

    I think you are right in both of your lines of discussion – it’s very important to read the genre in which you write in order to keep au fait with the current trends, and also in order to enrich your life – after all, we tend to write the sort of novels we enjoy reading, so we should allow ourselves that pleasure.

    Also, it’s important to read widely outside our genre in order to bring a greater breadth of vision to our work, and to be mentally invigorated by reading something totally different. I don’t write thrillers myself, but when I’m writing my historical novels, I have a steady diet of thrillers, which is a terrific way of relaxing.

    • Thanks for commenting, Liz. Every writer I’ve met started off as an avid reader. Sometimes as writers we are so enmeshed in our own work we ‘forget’ to go back to that first pleasure of reading.

      I find I read in a different way now that I’m a writer, but no less enjoyably!

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