Reading in (and out) of your genre to improve your writing

I recently finished reading Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr. In it, Anna Pigeon, a ranger in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, bravely pursues two related mysteries: a fellow ranger’s death and the seemingly non-existent population of mountain lions in the beautiful desert wilderness of the park.

I received this book as a Christmas present from a very good friend who is forever supportive of my writing career. Hidden beneath deep shiny purple wrapping paper were the first three novels in Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series, all worn and torn from when my friend loved the books herself. In fact, her name is still written in green sharpie across the pages of the foot of the book.

While my friend knows that I don’t want to write mystery novels per se, she also knows that my writing is inherently blended with my other passion: the natural world. My current work-in-progress deals very intimately with this and I have been striving to relate the soul-touching experiences of connecting with nature (without sounding too corny by saying things like “soul-touching”).

I found Nevada Barr’s writing to be inspirational in just this way. Here is an example passage from Track of the Cat:

Sand sparkled as if lit from beneath, the white salt flats glowed with reflected glory. Shadows became fathomless. The moon, as if held to a regal creep by a suddenly broken string, popped clear of the Guadalupe Mountains. Its light bathed the Patterson Hills. Desert hills: rugged and stony and cut deep with washes. No roads, no trails intruded on this outlying stretch of land. No people hiked or camped there. Not in July when daytime temperatures rose above a hundred and ten degrees and there was no water for miles in any direction.

And later…

In the city the lights blinded the night sky, robbed it of stars. Only the moon could compete, a pale contender against the roving searchlights of mall openings, the unwinking concern of security lights. No one was given an opportunity to feel deliciously small, magnificently unimportant. Everyone was forced, always, to take their dying littles as truth.

Slowly Anna breathed in through her nostrils, inhaling the desert, knowing this wisdom would pass, knowing she would flounder in nets of her own devising a thousand times before her dust blew across the mountain ridges. But as long as the desert remained, as long as the night sky’s darkness was preserved, she could read again her salvation there.


As writers, our impossible job is to convey the deepest truths in ourselves and in the world. Sometimes these truths seem wordless, and the more profound these truths are the more likely they came to us without words. Reading what others have written to express their own truths can offer us a clue, a starting point, for how we can approach this beautiful problem.

As Stephen King said: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”



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