Origins: Nora Roberts’s Northern Lights

I confess that–for much of my adult life–I was a book snob. There were certain categories of books that I had stopped reading because I had decided that they weren’t, well, serious. Romance novels were in that category. I’d read tons of Phyllis Whitney as a teenager (Spindrift is just the best title, ever.) and teen romantic adventures like “Debby Does Broadway” (yes, it’s a real book, and it has nary a sex scene in it). But I left those books behind when I discovered horror novels and a really fascinating drug reference guide that–forever whatever reason, surely innocuous–sat on my parents’ bookshelf.

Nora Roberts’s novel Northern Lights was a transformative read for me. I was skeptical when my Grand Rapids Press editor sent it to me on a whim. Roberts is one of the best-known, bestselling writers in the world, but her reputation isn’t exactly literary. Northern Lights is a murder mystery with a love story between two broken, lonely people at its heart. The scene, a small Alaska town, gives it a unique spin.

I fear this sounds incredibly condescending, but I was thoroughly surprised by the cohesion of the story and the very high quality of the writing. I don’t know why–Roberts had already written an enormous number of books by then (2004). Her prose was clear and concise, her characters engaging and complete, the story extremely compelling. Most of all, I found the novel very entertaining.

Before I was through reading, my attitude toward my own work underwent a huge change. I think it could be called a paradigm shift. It wasn’t that I wanted to write romantic suspense novels, but that I knew I wanted to write something more tactile, more fun than what I’d so far produced. I had long had some kind of Platonic ideal of what my novels should be like: they would have beautiful language and express, in delicate ways, Big Thoughts. Now, I’m not out to change the world, or offer profound thoughts, or influence opinions. I want to give a reader a few hours of satisfying entertainment. I feel a huge sense of freedom. If a reader closes one of my novels with a sense that they’ve read a tale well told, I’m more than happy.

Not long after I reviewed Northern Lights, I reviewed Luanne Rice’s novel, Summer of Roses, and again experienced a sense that I was in the hands of a writer whose work was going to be important to my development as a writer. Like Nora Roberts, Luanne is a writer who is underrated by those who would eschew novels of family drama and troubled relationships for more (ostensibly) highbrow fare. Now, I’m a huge fan of her work. I can’t recommend Rice and Roberts highly enough as role models for anyone who wants to learn how to create characters who live on the page and are engaged in realistic interpersonal relationships. (If you’re thinking you want to write the next Waiting for Godot–maybe they’re not for you!)

Has there been anyone in your life whose work or example caused you to have a paradigm shift?

Oh, and if you blog, or are a writer who is considering starting a blog, check out Tia Nevitt’s Wednesday piece. Tia’s a real pro–listen to her!

MONDAY: Sweet treats and surprises for all the little buckaroos! (And a paperback copy of ISABELLA MOON to the first commenter who can tell me what song/band the sweet treats line comes from. No fair Googling!!!!

6 thoughts on “Origins: Nora Roberts’s Northern Lights”

  1. Hint: the band is on my Myspace page favorite music list!

  2. Carla Buckley says:

    This was such an interesting post, Laura. I so agree that we can all benefit from giving writers in genres we don’t normally read a chance. I haven’t read Roberts or Rice, for the very same reasons you listed, but now, they’re heading to the top of my To Read list.

    As for me, I used to read predominantly mysteries by women writers. There were a few exceptions, but not many. But a year and a half ago, I’d heard so much about several male writers that I decided to give them a try. Once I got started, I couldn’t stop. Which was the leader of the pack, the book that unleashed the tides of male writers onto my nightstand (hmm, that sounds kind of…fun)? Lee Child’s Bad Luck and Trouble. Yes, I know. I’m late to the party on that one.

    But within a few months, I’d read all of Child’s work, and that of many of his contemporaries. I learned so much about how to pace and plot, how to open scenes, how to deliver on chapter endings. His writing is so spare and yet so complete. His characters just ARE. I was in the middle of revising my latest manuscript at that time and some of his magic must have seeped through: I ended up selling that novel to Lee’s editor!

  3. Tia Nevitt says:

    T. H. White’s The Once and Future King made me want to be a writer. Up until I read that novel, I was happy being a reader. But he made it seem so fun, that I just had to give it a try. My early work sounded just like his.

    Thanks so much for the link!

  4. What a fabulous story, Carla. And you know that Lee would be the first one to enjoy being on your nightstand tide!

    Luanne’s book, The Edge of Winter, is one of my favorites.

    I’m so glad to see you here!

  5. Tia–It’s always such a pleasure to link to your blog, sweetie. I’m glad you’re planning to make that particular post accessible–it’s definitely a keeper!

    Though I have canceled my Google Alerts. I’m just not tough enough to weather the occasional unpleasant news that pops up unexpectedly.

  6. Laura, this is a very timely post for me because I’ve recently undergone a pretty huge metamorphosis due to the influence of two writers. The first is screenplay writer Terry Rossio, who taught me to think in terms of a ‘strange attractor’ rather than ‘high concept’. It may sound like a small thing, but it’s made all the difference in the world to me.

    This revelation just happened to coincide with my discovery of Charlaine Harris. Boy, does she have that strange attractor thing nailed!

    Just goes to show old dogs can learn new tricks.

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