I live in an out-of-the-way place, so I can't invite you over. However, I can give you a peek into some of the things I know inspire me.
Fiction That Inspires Me
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.
I first read this in high school and it made an immediate impression. I've re-read it many times and I love the story it tells, the language it uses, and the largeness it aims at with such an economy of words. Every paragraph matters in this savagely ironic story, every sentence matters. It's a true masterwork.
- Robert Graves, I, Claudius.
I first came across this story on a list of what the British thought were great books when I was living in the UK. Intrigued, I found a copy and found that I agreed.
This is the best historical mystery you're likely to find (after all, it started or restarted the genre). Emperor Claudius, at the end of his life, retells how he survived his murderous family and the dangers of early-Empire Rome.
It's special feature is that it has one of the truly great villains in all of literature, Livia, wife of the Emperor Augustus. I measure my own villains by Livia. I never quite hit the mark, but I keep trying.
- Dashiel Hammett, The Maltese Falcon.
This is a famous hard-boiled mystery (and the seed for a great film noir), but it's on this list because of the emotions it creates in me whenever I read it. There's the story-within-the-story of a black bird that's actually a jewelled falcon that went astray from Maltese knights paying tribute, and on and on. Read that wonderful section if nothing else. It's truly a bit of magic plunked down inside a moth-eaten private-eye story.
- C.S. Forester, The Hornblower Books, especially Lieutenant Hornblower and Horatio Hornblower and the Atropos.
I came late to this party, but I am now a huge fan of the Hornblower novels. Yes, these books have inspired many tributes, including Star Trek ("Hornblower in Space"), Honor Harrington ("female Hornblower in Space"), Master and Commander, the Sharpe novels, and many more. I read them for the awkward main character, analytical and stoic and ambitious, and the impossible challenges he'd called on to solve. Half of the books are good or great, but even the awkward first three novels deserve a read. I believe that the treasures are some of the later books when Forester goes back and fills in Hornblower's earlier career.
(Of course, I should mention I am currently plotting out and writing a series that I describe as "Hornblower with magic." You can see the debt I have here.)
- Jonathan Kellerman, The Alex Delaware Novels.
Kellerman has created a great odd couple in his characters Alex Delaware, a sometime child psychologist, and Milo Sturgis, an overweight, gay police detective. I don't really read these books for their plots as much as for their great, insightful dialogue. There's usually at least one side character who Delaware and Sturgis interview that leaves me shaking my head and smiling. Kellerman is a master of the complex character and the dialogue that reveals such a worthy subject.
- Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.
I have purchased at least five copies of this book. I talk books with whoever will let me and sometimes hand over copies to someone who seems interested. Of all the different books I recommend, this is the one I never get back.
It is a wonderful and strange tale, more meta-mystery than straight mystery, set in medieval Italy with a Sherlock Holmes-like monk and his temporary assistant visiting a monastery where horrible things occur. They have to solve the layered mysteries that could portend the start of the Apocalypse.
I love the scope of the story and the crazy attention to detail and plotting it showcases. There is so much to recommend this story.
- William Golding, The Princess Bride.
I wish I could write funny like this. It's clever and satiric and genuinely moving, although it's more a meta-adventure than an adventure. For me it ticks all the right boxes: plots, princesses, pirates, poison, and that's just the letter 'P.'
- Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
This was my book as a child. I know I read at least one copy until it just wore apart at the binding. It's a child-sized adventure with a crazy man as an emcee and plenty of oddities along the way, but the true plot (when it's revealed) is both perfect and surprising.
- John le Carre, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.
This book is a master class in plotting. You'll need to read it at least twice, maybe more, to see how everything is woven together. A masterpiece of spy fiction. A masterpiece of fiction, period.
- Stephen King.
There was a time when he was dismissed as 'that bestseller.' Did he listen? It doesn't seem so. He kept writing, he kept selling big, he kept saying 'yes' when Hollywood called about adapting his stories. Though some people may cringe in horror, he will come to represent American fiction of the 1980s and 1990s. (People forget that Dickens was the biggest bestseller of his day, too, and that helps in surviving through the ages.)
I read King's books when I'm stuck or dithering on my own writing. He writes (mostly) in a horror vein, but his cast of characters is usually good people trying to band together and solve a hard problem. I admire the kinds of stories he creates and the groups of people he conjures to battle the varying monsters who live in his worlds.
- J.K. Rowling, The Harry Potter Books.
No one builds worlds as compelling and magical as Rowling does. She has such a keen eye for detail that she may be even better at this than Dickens, who seems to be her master in many things (tone, character, and size of books). I admire her ability to weave with such a large cast of characters and I learn from her style of plotting, too.
- What did I forget to include? What have I missed? Send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This list remains a work in progress. (Updated August 2015.)