Elizabeth: That’s My Story

A fan of happily-ever-after from an early age.

A fan of happily-ever-after from an early age.

In her post on Sunday, Jilly talked about the kinds of things that would be an immediate turn off when considering a new book. Judging by the comments, we all have pretty strong ideas about what doesn’t work for us when it comes to our choice of reading material. The discussion got me to thinking about the flip side: what would get me to take a chance on a new book?

In the McDaniel program we talked about how an interesting cover can be a great way to catch a reader’s attention (harder for eBooks, but still possible). At the recent RWA conference I noticed that I was drawn to a number of book covers featuring cupcakes or cake (it’s possible I was hungry at the time) while other covers caught my attention with interesting titles and artwork. Regardless of what caught my eye initially, it was the story teaser on the back cover and the first few pages of the story that helped me decide what books I put back down and which ones I was willing to schlep all the way back home.

Looking at the stack of books in my TBR pile, as well as the books on my keeper shelf, I’ve noticed a few common elements. Here then, in no particular order, are some of the things I like in my stories:

Snark and Humor

Life is serious and sometimes downright discouraging, so my favorite stories are infused with humor and very frequently include snarky heroes/heroines. I just finished re-reading Jenny Crusie’s Bet Me, and the opening scene where our girl Min is thinking of ways to do away with the no-good boyfriend who is dumping her is laden with humor and snark. That scene alone would have convinced me to read the book even if I knew nothing else about the story or author. Julia Quinn’s books are generally infused with humor as well, making them engaging and entertaining, even when dealing with serious story lines.

Community

I definitely have weakness for series books that feature a connected group of characters, whether they are family members, schoolmates, regiment members, or just people living in the same area. The Company of Rogues stories by Jo Beverley are some of my favorites. Each story is stand-alone with its own hero/heroine, but there is just enough cross-over of characters to give the books a strong feeling of family and community. The books are also interesting because the timing of the stories overlaps, so in different books you get a different perspective of common events. Like anything else, of course, there can be too much of a good thing. On series that I read a few years back featured members of a particular family and now, 20 or so books later, it’s still going on. I wandered away after about a dozen books because the characters all started to run together. I like a strong sense of community, but in moderation. 🙂

A heroine I can relate to

When it comes to the heroine of the story, I like her to be someone I can relate to, someone who is not perfect but has qualities that are believable and endearing. The heroines in the last two Kristin Higgins stories I read both loved dogs and hair that tended to take on a life of its own when not tamed by industrial strength styling products – both things I can relate to. Being able to make a connection to the heroine helps me get invested in the story and makes it more likely that I’ll want to see it through to the end. In Seduction, by Amanda Quick, the heroine Sophy was always coming undone somewhere – either her hair was falling out of its pins or her sleeve was unraveling. It made her seem very human and made her very likeable and engaging. Her hero, the Earl of Ravenwood was not so charming, but she made up for his lack.

A charming hero

Since most of what I read is romance, the stories that catch my attention need both a heroine and a hero that catch my interest. The most interesting heroes are not the “most handsome man in the world with a great job and lots of money” types. That would be kind of boring, or annoying, or something. I like my heroes to be a little flawed. Rupert Carsington, from Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible, is a good example of the kind of hero that appeals to me. He’s good looking and capable, but also gets into a fair amount of trouble. He’s extra endearing because he recognizes the intelligence of the heroine and doesn’t try to diminish her.

An appealing setting

One of the books I picked up during my RWA wandering was An Early Wake by Sheila Connolly.   It’s a cozy mystery set in County Cork, Ireland (where I was last fall), in a pub (I visited a number of those), and features some Irish musicians (what’s not to like?). I associate the setting with happy memories, which makes the book an appealing read for me. Books set in the Highlands, like Suzanne Enoch’s Mad, Bad, and Dangerous in Plaid, or the canals of Venice, like Loretta Chase’s Your Scandalous Ways are equally likely to be given a chance.

An interesting structure

This last element, an interesting story structure, applies more to books outside the romance category. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was told as a story, within a story, within a story. Wilkie Collin’s Woman in White was told like testimony in a court case. 84 Charing Cross Road was told via series of letters. The unusual structures give these stories an extra layer of appeal.  When used carefully, a non-standard structure can change a common plot into something fresh and different, which makes for an appealing read.

So, those are some of the things that will cause me to give a book a chance. What about you?

13 thoughts on “Elizabeth: That’s My Story

  1. Things I look for in a book – intelligence, humor, snark, and community. I like the hero and heroine to have a goal or task, not just be in the same place at the same time and be hit by a wave of insta-lust. They don’t have to save the world, but they have to do/solve/find something. And I like a strong hero – confident and capable, doesn’t have to be loaded or drop-dead gorgeous. He doesn’t need to be charming, I love a dark, growly hero, but he has to appreciate and encourage a strong heroine, maybe stronger than him in some circumstances. I love great dialogue, and I adore subtext, especially when it demonstrates a deep understanding between the main characters (and the reader).

    What would make me take a chance on a new-to-me author? 99% of the time, it’s a recommendation from somebody I trust. If any of the 8 Ladies said they’ve read something they thought I’d like, I’d buy it in a heartbeat. I read Outlander because we talked about it in class, and Bujold thanks to Micki. I’m still working through the historical recommendations I got here in May. I was in two minds about Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation books because there are two plots – a current-day one and a historical one – which is usually another no, thanks for me, but Rachel Beecroft likes them a lot so I’m going to try them. I bought Ilona Andrews because Eloisa James recommended her, and that was a happy day. And now I have the NPR list. I’ve read about a third of the books on that list and they’re all good choices, so that leaves me about two-thirds to play with. If I like those new-to-me authors, I’ll read all their other books. Which should keep me amused for a nice, long time.

    • Jilly – I’m right with you on wanting the hero/heroine to have a goal or task and actually do something. I like it when they’re working together to reach a common goal, especially if they don’t want to be doing so.

  2. I like humor and snark, too. I just did a little reading on Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and her motto is “Life is too short to read depressing books,” and I am so in agreement about that. I make purchase decisions after one page, and often after one paragraph and sometimes after one sentence, and what I like is great writing, with unusual vocabulary or word juxtapositions, or something like that. It’s hard to describe, but I want language to tickle my fancy—I want to enjoy the words and how they sound and how they’re strung together, not just words as in plot development. There are a lot of really competent romance writers out there, and they use correct grammar and syntax and avoid repetition and have great vocabularies, and the books are structured well and everything’s fine, but…most of them leave me flat. I just want that language to reach in and grab me. If the language is to die for, I’ll forgive a lot of other problems. And I like fun dialogue.

    I like heroines who are not focused solely on their desire to get a man or their material possessions (the dropping of brand names drives me nuts, although I have to confess a lot of my heroines shop at Target, and in the WIP, TJ Maxx). I like heroes who can take charge but don’t have to; who are strong without being overbearing. I like strong subplots where outside forces are at work to drive the couple together or apart.

    I’m looking forward to the NPR list, too, because when I think that only Bet Me made it, and there are so many other Jenny Crusies to enjoy, then you know how many books are out there waiting to be discovered.

    • Kay, Ilike SEP’s motto too. In the past, I always finished a book once I started it, but now I’ll happily leave one unfinished if it isn’t working out for me. Great writing/language is definitely on my list as well. I like Loretta Chase’s Captives of the Night for that very reason. Somehow the words she uses and the way the sentences are constructed make the story very alive to me. It’s also one of the very few books I’ve ever read where I can clearly “hear” the characters as I’m reading.

  3. I like a lot of different things, so I’m rarely “oh, Book X doesn’t have Y, so I won’t read it.” But one thing I really, really want in a book is the sense that the author likes human beings and can sympathize with their foibles. A sense of humor often plays into that, but mostly it’s the kindness.

    This has developed as I grew older — when I was younger, humor was the main thing. I loved everything from Mark Twain to Piers Anthony . . . and I’m afraid I don’t like my one-time favorite books as much now.

    Another thing that has changed is that I’m about two hundred kilometers from an English bookstore with enough variety to suit my tastes. So, I rarely get sucked in by covers. I like and appreciate a good cover. I love a nice cover that portrays the main characters accurately. I’m also very fond of a certain 60s retro cartoon style. But the cover won’t sell me anymore.

    These days, I usually get a rec from a friend or from a professsional. I read the blurbs and other reviews, looking for hints about the kindness of the author and the skill level. And then I’ll finally buy it.

    I’m also very lucky that I have family and friends with good and interesting taste in books — I get a lot of books that way. Stuff that maybe I wouldn’t have chosen, but it’s 200 km to the bookstore so . . . I give it a try, and I like it. Or even love it.

    • A sense that the author likes human beings and can sympathise with their foibles. Yes, that, exactly, Micki. If we could get those books all shelved together, or tagged, or something, I’d max out my credit card. Maybe we should start a list 🙂

    • Michaeline – it’s interesting how our tastes change over time, isn’t it? I have a number of old favorites that I’ve avoided re-reading because I’m not sure how well they match my current reading tastes. I’m in the process of clearing out the bookshelves and donating those books that no longer work for me. I’ll have to take a second look at the NPR list to find suggestions to fill the blank spaces.

    • It’s interesting that when we have all the books in the universe to choose from, we have criteria. When getting an English-language book is difficult, we’ll be less selective. I once spent six months on a sailboat bobbing around the Caribbean, and I read anything at all that crossed my path. The only two books I couldn’t finish in that period were One Hundred Years of Solitude (too much like life on a sailboat) and The Encyclopedia of Sea Shells. Thinking about it, it’s easy to see why the Kindle and ebooks took off so quickly. There’s a lot of people 200km from an English-language bookstore, or bobbing around the Caribbean.

      • (-: I don’t think I’d pick up a Jimmy Buffett book all by myself . . . but it turned out to be really quite interesting. Maybe one of the top ten books I read that year. Wish I could remember what it was — either A Salty Piece of Land, or maybe A Pirate Looks at 50. I seem to remember it being autobiographical, but it might have been a novel that seemed really Jimmy Buffetty. (If you aren’t placing him, he’s the singer/songwriter behind “(Wasting Away Again in) Margaritaville” and other southern pops.)

        • Aaand there’s another book added to my list, or at least a book to track down. I know nothing about Jimmy Buffett but this sounds worth investigating, Micki.

          My best non-fiction read this year so far is Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys, about flash trading and Wall Street. I picked it up from a table when I met Rachel Beecroft for coffee in Waterstone’s. I suppose it was an impulse buy, but I really like Michael Lewis – he writes well and always picks subjects that interest me (Liar’s Poker, The Blind Side, Moneyball).

        • Random piece of trivia, Buffet is one of eight authors in the New York Times Bestseller list’s history to have reached number one on both the fiction and non-fiction lists. A Pirate Looks at 50 is autobiographical, but most of his other books look to be fiction. I haven’t ready any of them yet, but I’ve heard good things about them. Must add him to the reading queue.

  4. Pingback: Jilly: End of Series Anxiety | Eight Ladies Writing

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