Authors are inspired by many things. For me, it can be the odd article in the newspaper or online, an overheard conversation in a restaurant, people watching at the mall, a song — well, almost anything can give me an idea about a plot or a character. But many authors have one author or even one book that inspired them to write, influenced what they wrote.
Several years ago, I was asked to contribute an essay about my muse for an anthology. The anthology was called Mystery Muses: 100 Classics That Inspire Today’s Mystery Writers, edited by Jim Huang and Austin Lugar (Crum Creek Press, 2006). The book won an Anthony Award for best critical work, awarded at the annual meeting of the World Mystery Writers, Bouchercon.
To preview the upcoming Bouchercon in Cleveland in October, I asked my fellow panelists on the Murder, Mayhem, and the Mattress Mambo panel (or as we like to call it the “I Used to Love Her, But Had to Kill Her” panel) to write an essay on which author or book inspired them to write. Each Wednesday in September, I will post one of these essays.
- September 5th — Lori Armstrong
- September 12th — Heather Graham
- September 19th — Jordan Dane
- September 26th — CJ Lyons
To kick off these essays, I am sharing my contribution to the Mystery Muses collection:
MARY STEWART’S THE MOON SPINNERS
In the summer of 1964, I picked up The Moon Spinners. From the opening line, Mary Stewart had this twelve-year-old girl hooked: “It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it.” Such a simple line filled with questions. Who is the narrator? Where was the narrator that she chanced to see an egret fly from a lemon grove? And what exactly had started?
From that little line, I traveled with Nikky Ferris, a young British woman, on a journey of discovery and danger. When Nikky takes that first step off the beaten path to Agios Georgios, she didn’t know it yet, but she has changed her life forever. As she makes her way into the rugged mountains lining the Greek coastline, I tasted the dust Nikky’s shoes cast into the air. I smelled the lemon flowers as she wends her way through the grove. I shivered at the coolness of the mountain water when Nikki pauses to rinse her hot, dusty hands. I shared her sense of isolation and the building anticipation that something was going to happen. When Lambos drops into her path, knife in hand, my heart rate jumped right along with Nikky’s. What had started out to be a pleasant little getaway with her aunt in a sleepy little Greek seaside resort, has now become a life and death matter as Nikky’s future becomes inextricably intertwined with Mark and Colin Langley’s lives – – lives that had been changed forever when the brothers stumbled across murder in the wilds of Greece. And I was with her every step of the way.
What amazes me, now that I also write novels, is that the set up in The Moon Spinners is done so effortlessly and in less than two chapters. There are no wasted words or lines in a Mary Stewart book. Just as the fabled Moon Spinners spin the moon, Ms. Stewart spins her story, effortlessly and inexorably pulling in her reader.
So what is it about Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels that has captured several generations of readers and influenced a generation of authors?
For me, other than the amazing settings and sense of place, it is her ability to create an atmosphere that holds you breathlessly in its thrall from her novels’ first words until the last. Her usage of words rivals a poet’s. No doubt about it: Mary Stewart is a master wordsmith. Added to her perfect selection of words is a superb sense of pacing. Each word, each line of text builds upon its predecessor, building tension and providing relief, only to escalate again until the final climactic scene. Her plots are a perfect balance of description, suspense, and romance and as seamless as a Mobius strip. This is why myself and a whole generation of authors has attempted to emulate Mary Stewart’s style.
In my romantic suspense novels, I sweat every word, every line, striving to recreate the suspense-romance symmetry, the perfect pacing of a Mary Stewart novel. My villains are driven to commit evil. The heroes are strong; the heroines, just as strong or stronger. Fate throws them together, changing their lives for better – – or worse, as the case may be. In my books, as in Stewart’s, good always triumphs over evil, but sometimes the line between the two is a bit smudged. From lean first lines to the end, I strive to take my readers on just as breathless a ride as Mary Stewart always gave me. Do I do this as gracefully and seamlessly as she did? I only hope so. Time will tell.
Copyright, Monette Michaels, 2006. This essay is not to be reprinted without the express permission of the author. Worldwide print anthology rights are held by Crum Creek Press.