If you have a stable of favorite writers, you could probably pick up any blind sample and say, yes, this is le Carre or Robert Parker or C.S. Forester or Ira Levin. (I just put down a Stephen King novel, a private detective mystery, and realized that it both felt like a King book, even without the horror/supernatural elements, and didn't. Even when he was consciously trying to do something different, he only got part of the way there.)
These are the fingerprints a writer leaves.
Some are stylistic. Think of Hemingway's usually short, direct sentences.
Some are tied to the construction of the story. How the plotting works or something. When I read Daniel Silva, it seems like half the book is devoted to bringing together a long list of characters from prior books so they can get on with the caper.
Others are theme.
Often, I find a writer has a particular set of concerns. Lately, I've been most interested in this fingerprint. The fixation points.
The financial columnist Jason Zweig once wrote this:
I was once asked, at a journalism conference, how I defined my job. I said: My job is to write the exact same thing between 50 and 100 times a year in such a way that neither my editors nor my readers will ever think I am repeating myself.
That paragraph is golden. Writers do this, too. Attempt to work out a few simple ideas in twenty or fifty or, for a few, a hundred stories. The same few ideas, the same fingerprints.
I've been working through a small group of ideas in my most recent series. Ideas of success and wealth and security -- both the good facets and the very bad. It's really sort of amazing how many variations I can make on just a couple of ideas. But I can see my own fingerprints pretty clear even when I want to write about something else.
Maybe I'll keep telling these stories until I work my way into a different set of fingerprints.
Until that happens, I'll just have to enjoy the fixation points I have for now.