Friday, March 25, 2016

Everything I Know About Writing I Learned From Mary Stewart


Welcome to an occasional series of guest bloggers.
Today our visitor is Jeannette de Beauvoir.
We hope you enjoy these posts as well as our usual fare!

~~~the Not Your Usual Suspects team~~~




Everything I Know About Writing I Learned From Mary Stewart

That’s a slight exaggeration, of course; but not as much as you’d think. I grew up in France, the daughter of an American mother and a French father, and my mother’s TBR pile was always toppling over with the English-language books she shared with me—and in fact insisted I read. Romantic suspense appealed to me from about age nine on, and we had (thanks to trips to Paris to raid W.H. Smith’s bookstore) nearly the entire Stewart opus. And I fell in love with those books, over and over again, reading and re-reading them until I had entire portions down to memory.
I may have been unconsciously following her style when, in my early teens, I myself began writing; but it was as an adult that I truly came to see Stewart’s whole opus—20 adult novels over 40 years—as the best writing classes imaginable.
Her opening lines draw readers immediately into the story and the personality of the protagonist (talk about “you had me at hello”!). Check them out:
·       “Carmel Lacy is the silliest women I know, which is saying a great deal.” (Airs Above the Ground).
·       “The whole affair began so very quietly.” (Madam, Will You Talk?)
·        “I am an old man now, but then I was already past my prime when Arthur was crowned king.” (The Crystal Cave)
·       “My lover came to me on the last night in April, with a message and a warning that sent me home to him.” (Touch Not The Cat)
·       “I met him in the street called Straight.” (The Gabriel Hounds)
·       “In the first place, I suppose, it was my parents' fault for giving me a silly name like Gianetta.” (Wildfire at Midnight)
Her descriptions of places have you smelling the flowers she lovingly names and feeling hot sun on your face; whether you’re in southern France or Greece or Lebanon or Austria or England, you have an instantaneous and extraordinarily vivid sense of the locale. “Her eye for detail could be used to maximum effect—the texture of a cloak or the color of a sky—with nature to the fore of the action,” reads one of her obituaries.
And she can scare you with the best of them. Other authors, darker than Stewart—I’m thinking Thomas H. Cook, Phil Rickman, masters of suspense—may be able to build atmosphere; she weaves it around you until you suddenly realize your heart rate is increasing and your palms are sweating.
The relationships she enables are no less complex. I use the word “enables” intentionally: these don’t feel like artificial creations, but like real organic feelings that come from the characters rather than the author—she’s just letting them flow through her. Her protagonists are smart, educated, independent, with a strongly developed sense of humor and not without faults; and so are their romantic interests. The development of these relationships (along with the requisite misunderstandings and obstacles) is both natural and sophisticated.
Her novels are filled with literary allusions, and they’re smart: she fully expects you to keep up, but never in a heavy-handed way. I’ve always felt with authors like Umberto Eco that if you don’t speak Latin you miss all the good jokes; Stewart’s allusions are unobtrusive and clever. She prefaces chapters with appropriate quotations from classic literature, and her protagonists have all had classical educations. “Mary Stewart sprinkled intelligence around like stardust,” columnist Melanie Reid wrote in the Glasgow newspaper The Herald in 2004. “The fineness of her mind shone through.”
So what did I learn about writing from reading Mary Stewart? To put readers in the story’s context as early as possible, preferably in the opening line. To nearly always write in the first person—yes, it’s limiting, but it’s also intense. To present a protagonist that readers will care about. And to be (old-fashioned as it sounds) a lady about it. Sensationalism is out, lyricism is in.
Want to learn to write? Read Mary Stewart. Want a fantastic story? Read Mary Stewart. Want to see how the best of the best of romantic thrillers unfolds? Read Mary Stewart.
Mary Stewart’s last book was published in 1997; the rest of us are still just trying to keep up.


Jeannette de Beauvoir’s most recent novel, Deadly Jewels, came out in March 2016. Kirkus Reviews says that it "cleverly weaves real events into a mystery/thriller whose flashbacks contain the clues to solve the puzzle," while it's the top pick of RT Book Reviews, "seamlessly weaving the historical and the modern, de Beauvoir crafts a mystery that gives her engaging protagonist... a strong return. De Beauvoir's voice and character development are stellar."



Reach Jeannette at:
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10 comments:

Jeannette de Beauvoir said...

Thanks so much for hosting me today! I'd love to hear whether other readers have loved Mary Stewart as much as I have.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Welcome to Not Your Usual Suspects, Jeannette. I'm embarrassed to say I haven't read Mary Stewart, though friends have pressed her books on me before. You make such a strong case, however that I will definitely check her out now! Thanks for the interesting blog and congratulations on the release of Deadly Jewels!

Jeannette de Beauvoir said...

So glad to hear that! Give her a read, she's fantastic. And thanks for hosting me today!

Cathy Perkins said...

Thanks for visiting, Jeannette. I remember reading The Crystal Cave (ahem...many years ago) and loving it. Thanks for the reminder! I'll have to look for her books.

Anne Marie Becker said...

Welcome, Jeannette! Loved the post. It brought back so many memories. I've read a few of Stewart's books, and probably have them on a shelf somewhere. I ought to revisit them! In particular, I remember thoroughly submersing myself in The Crystal Cave. :D

Congratulations on your book release! It sounds fabulous.

jean harrington said...

Jeannette, You've sent me racing to my Kindle for Mary Stewart's books and for yours! Looking forward to the reads. And last, but not least, welcome to NYUS!

Helena said...

I was nodding along with every word you wrote; no-one can praise Mary Stewart too highly, in my view. I've lost count of the number of times I've re-read her romantic suspenses. I love them for the wonderful sense of place she evokes, and the characters and their relationships. It doesn't matter that she's writing about a time which has gone now -- the books are so vivid that one can imagine being there, then. For example, Charity's enjoyment of the food in France after the rationing in England (Madam, Will You Talk?), and Damascus, Beirut and the Lebanon as they once were before all the troubles (The Gabriel Hounds).

Jeannette de Beauvoir said...

So glad to hear she still has so many fans! And you're right, often what she writes about doesn't exist anymore... which lends it something of a bittersweet quality. I do wish her books were available in electronic format, so I could have them with me when I travel.

And thank you all for the warm welcome! Id be delighted if you'd read Deadly Jewels... and let me know what you think of it!

Anonymous said...

This essay is mouthwatering. I believe I will go check out Stewart's novels. Thank you, Jeannette, and congratulations on Deadly Jewels! I'm sure to check it out, as well.

Rita said...

Welcome to Not Your Usual Suspects. Wonderful post. Thank you. There are so many wonderful books I have yet to read. Sigh.