And of course there is the canon for whatever category you write (or in my case read) in. I mentioned the canon a few days back as something you'd need to know if you wanted to write something fresh and new in a well-trod category.
I hadn't heard the term "the canon" till I got to grad school when it was the subject of fierce debate. I mean fistfight debate. Of course that was just about the time a lot of people realized the literary canon should include people like Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, Tillie Olson, and all those other people who didn't have the balls to be old white men.
But enough of my misspent youth.
Recently, I was reading my requested fulls. One was a fresh take on the old familiar country house murder trope. I had LOVED those books as a kid. Not just for the murder but for the world they created. No surprise I grew up to love Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey, and my beloved Gosford Park.
Which brings us to The Secret of Chimneys which is an Agatha Christie novel. You might not have heard of it because the main character is Superintendent Battle not the world famous Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple (who I think is the best character ever, and to hell with that walking Belgian mustache.)
But I digress.
I realized as I was reading the manuscript that it had been quite some time since I'd read one of the original country house mysteries. I popped online and sure enough, The Secret of Chimneys was right there in paperback and ebook. I bought the paperback (somehow I had the idea if I did, I'd also get the ebook, but that was my stupidity.)
I started reading the ebook only to discover it stopped about 20 pages in and I'd have to buy it to keep reading.
Now, writer fiends, here's the point of this blog post: I didn't wait till Tuesday, a mere 48 hours from that exact moment, when the paperback would arrive. I didn't wait till Tuesday to finish reading a book I've read at least five times before (admittedly some years back, but I knew whodunit, and I knew the ending.)
I bought the ebook so I could finish the book then and there. And I did. And it was as good, if not better than I remembered (although the racism and classism is just really hard to ignore.)
And that is the pudding proof of damn fine writing.
Thus my suggestion to you: list five go-to books for the canon in your category. Go read them again. See if they hold up. If they do, you know you've got an author to study closely. What they're doing has stood the test of time, changing fashion, changing tastes.
You might not be able to read 100 books in your category but you surely can read five.
If I were to pick five they would be:
The Mirror Crack'd by Agatha Christie
The Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan
The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block
And even as I look at this list I think of all my faves who are not here: Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Catriona McPherson, all my clients!!!, Nick Petrie, Lou Berney, and a dozen others I'll think of in another minute.
But my point here is not to choose only five, it's to figure out what works in a novel that appeals to you for YEARS. A novel that you'd use to illustrate essential elements of a novel (I use Key to Rebecca on shifting POV all the time.) A novel that can be YOUR signpost for moving ahead.
When I go to the Met, I often see students painting copies of the great masters. By copying they are learning. It's not plagiarism to copy. It's plagiarism to copy something and pass it off as your original work. Thus, I suggest using these authors as guideposts, but don't just change the names in The Secret of Chimneys and expect to have a bestseller. Superintendent Battle and his sharkly fan will not be happy if you do.
Do you have some classics that have stood the test of time?
PS writer fiends is not a typo