“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
—Louis L’Amour

What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing

Four novels sit on my desk at all times: To Kill a Mockingbird, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Lovely Bones, and The Book Thief.

There are many other books I adore, but these are my favorite books, the ones I keep nearby for writing inspiration. Each changed me in an unforgettable way.

What Your Favorite Books Can Tell You About Your Writing

Inside Stories vs. Outside Stories

Those are the stories on my outsides, but what about the ones I carry inside?

Have you ever analyzed your inner stories?

You should because it’s where you’ll find your most powerful and un-put-downable writing.

Set aside time to take a journey from your present into your past, then back again. It’s well worth the effort because it makes a tremendous difference in how compelling your stories are.

Here’s how:

Connecting Your Inner/Outer Stories

1. List your five favorite books. Write them down as fast as possible. Don’t overthink this. Just trust your instincts and write. If need be, make two separate lists: one for fiction and the other for nonfiction.

2. Find the common themes on your list. Are you drawn to redemption, self-discovery, forgiveness, good versus evil, transformation, love conquers all or triumph of the human spirit? It doesn’t have to be something boiled down to one word or even one theme. Just look for the common denominators between your books.

3. Reflect on the stories from your childhood. What are the most important moments of your formative years, growing up? Happy or sad, think back on them all, then write them down.

4. Study the overlapping links between your lists. It is where your most powerful inner stories reside. These are the stories of your heart. If your lists do not connect and you’re struggling with your writing, this may explain the problem. Don’t write to the market. It’s fickle and ever-changing. You should be telling stories you fell compelled to write. That’s where your passion lies.

Me, as a Guinea Pig

In doing this process myself, I discovered the following:

* I love dark stories brave enough to illuminate pain with incredible light. The Lovely Bones is narrated by as a fourteen-year-old girl who was raped and murdered. She tells her story from heaven and her family falls to pieces in dealing with their grief, as well as trying to find her killer. Her insights are both heartbreaking and beautiful.

* I’m drawn to child protagonists in adult fiction. A Prayer for Owen Meany is told from an adult perspective, but it’s still a coming-of-age story.

* I like stories that are different. A teenage girl telling her story from heaven? The Book Thief is narrated by Death. I love out-of-the-box books.

As far as considering my childhood, it was pretty middle-class: a dad who worked full-time and a mom who stayed home full-time with my brother, sister and me. We spent summers running through the sprinklers and winters making snow ice cream. Was it perfect?

NO! But, it wasn’t super dark like my favorite books.

However, when I was two my father was the sole survivor of a private plane crash. The other two men died. My father crushed his vertebrae, which made him a full inch shorter forever—a mere 6′ 2″. For awhile, the doctors were unsure if he’d ever walk again (he did, though often in pain).

I don’t remember any of this; I just was a toddler. We didn’t discuss the incident as a family. It upset my dad too much. Still, it stood as a constant in the background of my life. Plus, I heard other people talk about it over the years to make the story my own. His struggle became my struggle, too.

Triumph of the human spirit is hugely important to me. We all have our demons to face. It’s true in my fiction and nonfiction. One of the most popular magazine articles I was ever paid to write was about a woman surviving her grief after the drowning death of her husband and all three sons in a boating accident. She lost her entire family in one afternoon. It was inspiring to meet her and tell her courageous story of finding peace and joy again.

I hope you try this exercise. It will give you more clarity about the stories of your heart, as well as captivate your reader when you fuel them with your writing.

Good luck!

What are your five favorite books of all time? Please share in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Spend fifteen minutes starting the process of analyzing your outer/inner stories outlined above. First, list out your favorite books, and consider the common themes between them. Next, reflect on your own stories. Have you found any common themes between your favorite books and your own life?

Please write about your findings and share the comments section.

And if you post, be sure to leave feedback for a few other practitioners.

About Marcy McKay

Marcy McKay is the “Energizer Bunny of Writers.” She believes writing is delicious and messy and hard and important. If you’ve ever struggled with your writing, you can download her totally FREE book, Writing Naked: One Writer Dares to Bare All. Find her on Facebook!

  • Mandy Carroll

    My five favorite books….and maybe I left a few out because I was trying to do this fast…
    A wrinkle in time, The time travelers wife, Winnie the Pooh, James and the Giant Peach, Harry Potter Book 7. And I will add one on…How to be Brave.
    All of these stories have something to do with conquering good and evil and redemption. I did not realize that until I started the list. They all have good and bad and giving people the choice between the two. And they deal with waiting and being still and not feeling like one has to be this perfect creation while waiting. Some are waiting for their Love to return. Some are waiting for a family to be reunited and then finding what the family really is. One is about being and being alive for each other and friendship and the unavailability to define that until it happens to you. All are about survival and the chance and the choice to live no matter what has befallen one.

    • Excellent, Mandy. The other connection I saw was grand adventures (Winnie the Pooh did adventures, too, though his were more quiet). Still, all FABULOUS books.
      I hope you’ll try to connect those theme to your life. You’ll be glad you did.

  • There are others, but two books come immediately to mind, one I read recently, Pearl in the Sand by Tessa Afshar, and Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, which i read as a child [and now want to read again.] The common thread in these two otherwise vastly different stories is: love conquers. truly, my novel, Tessa, displays the same thing, love conquers all else.

    • Sofonisba A.

      Love conquers is really a beautiful one.

    • I adored A Wrinkle in Time growing up. I haven’t read Pearl in the Sand, but it sounds lovely. Try this exercise more in depth later. It’s really cool and helpful to uncover the connections between our life and our books.

  • Sofonisba A.

    I didn’t like the idea of this exercise so much, but when I did it, I loved it! I think this is going to be really helpful in deciding themes and topics and the directions of my next short stories and novels.
    5 Favorite Books from the Top of Your Head: Harry Potter Series, Narnia, Cronus Chronicles, The Hobbit, Graceling, 100 Cupboards. There are plenty more that I like more than those, but not that I can think of at the moment. And I know that’s more than 5, but I couldn’t decide which ones to take off. Oh well.

    Themes Present in All or Most of Those Books: Adventures, adventures into other worlds, ordinary people doing extraordinary things, becoming a hero, facing impossible odds and succeeding, doing something you never thought you could do, having to fight against yourself to also be able to win against the bad guys, friendship, when friends help you in the fight against bad guys and yourselves, man character + others as a team

    Important Events/Themes in Your Childhood: Us against the world kind of feeling, us ganging with each other to have fun and protect each other, us searching for adventure, us trying to be brave, us fighting each other, us trying to be close, us praying and hoping, us being optimistic. We sort of acted like everything was in a story, so this isn’t as dramatic as it sounds.

    • Hi Sofonisba,
      I’m totally impressed that you even TRIED this idea since you didn’t like it. Thanks for trusting me.
      You did AMAZING work. There’s very clear patterns to what you came up with and I hope it helps infuse your writing in the future.

  • Renette Steele

    Tree of hearts a short story, Unlocked, Cat who, After Anne, guilty by association.

    i grew up in state where one religion was very dominate and i was not that religion felt very left out and made fun of had few friends so all the above stories tend to lean towards the under dog triumphing over their circomstances and becoming something inspit of what others had to say.

    • Thanks for sharing, Renette. Stories about the underdog really inspire people, because we root for that character. Good luck in your writing.

  • Len Heggarty

    Why is Marcy McKay writing about herself and thinks that everyone is an effigy of her. Are we all tin soldiers out here are we and we are all lined up to be regimented all in a row like in school.
    Marcy makes me sick. Will she stop writing about herself as if she is the centre of the writing. What about us?

    • Helaine Grenova

      Len the past several post you have done are all done with a downbeat and petulant tone. Why is that? This cite is for the purpose of writers to support each other not tear each other down.

  • Doris Stone

    This post was fantastic! I did the practice writing. Wow! I could see my life through a new set of eyes. Somehow, the exercises allowed me to embrace my stories instead of smoother them. Thank you! My favorite books- Love You Forever, The Giving Tree, Charlotte’s Web, Thomas’ Snowsuit and I Have to Go!

    • Great list, Doris.
      That was my intent, to show you your life and your favorite books connect to each other and how it can empower your writing when you understand the stories of your heart.

  • Jay Warner

    My five favorite fiction books are Crossing to Safety, No Great Mischief, Sound and Fury, The Snow Child, The Princess and the Goblin, Swallows and Amazons (oh wait, that’s six). When I thought about the themes in each book that drew me to that book I saw the recurring elements of family and friendships (community), aging, reflection, reconciliation, change, and transformation (a more transcendent form of change?). Then I reflected back on my childhood and the main events that stuck out for me were all about being connected to family or being torn from community and relocated to another place (moving 1400 miles away when I was 10 had a profound negative impact on every family member). In my heart of hearts, the concept of place is extremely important to me – how I relate to the place I am in, and how place always appears as a palpable character in my writing. I write about place and then people inside a place, and then the community that surrounds them, and then how they transform within these circles or what happens when they are torn from their circles. This is not something I had noticed about my writing or myself, and I enjoyed this exercise as a self-discovery. Quite interesting and informative.

    • Fantastic, Jay (btw, I LOVVVVVVED The Snow Child),

      That’s fascinating how place is so important to you. I feel as if your writing almost makes place another character in your stories. That’s not easy to do, so I’m impressed.

      I’m glad you found the exercise in enlightening. I did, too, and wanted to share it with TWP. Thanks.

  • Adele Clee

    I found this to be a really interesting exercise, Marcy. My favourite books are Dracula, Jane Eyre, Treasure Island, The Woman in White.
    When I examine the list I guess the recurring theme is the rise of the persecuted or perhaps subverting the notion of what constitutes weakness. I love writing Historical Romance novels but I’m also drawn to writing short stories that convey dark themes. Just thinking about the ones I’ve written, they all challenge the idea of the stereotypical villain. Interesting!!

    • What a fascinating combination of books you have, Adele. I like what you come up with. Keep going and examine your life events, too, so you can really utilize your life’s themes.

    • Nice. You know I think the world has so much focused on the shiny and the bright that when books about the dark and the gritty show up they tend to be more popular because they are so different. 🙂 And they tend ot have more effect on the audience then any other. (This was just a thought.)

  • Terence Verma

    My favorite books have been by AJ Cronin. I read them when I was in my 20s. Made me cry! It is possible that at that stage of life I might have been grappling with issues that were the theme of Cronin’s work. After that I haven’t read fiction, but mostly books dealing with self development. Priorities could have changed. Maybe that should tell me somethings about myself. May have to read Cronin again and figure if his writing still impacts me in the same way.

    • Oooooh, Terence. I think that’s a fabulous idea to reread Cronin again and see how your perspective has changed. Good luck!

  • Helaine Grenova

    My favorite books are The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale, The Princess Academy, also by Shannon Hale, pretty much any book by Clive Cussler, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Redwall, by Brian Jacques, Cinder and Ella, by Kelly Oram, and Gamer Girl, by Mari Mancusi. I know that this is way more than 5 but I read so many wonderful books that I feel that I have to list a lot of them.

    Main themes from these books are a main character that is somehow knocked down and doesn’t have much self confidence but in the end become strong and are a force to be reckoned with. I also like strong characters that make mistakes, but are able, with the help of friends, to save the world in the end.

    My own life is kinda similar to these stories. I don;t have the most self-confidence, but would do anything to help my friends out. I make mistakes, get hurt and hide my true feelings. I don’t have very many friends because I am prickly and very opinionated, but those that are my friends stay as my friends if I can do anything about it.

    • Hi Helaine,
      Your books definitely have a similar theme, but I’m intrigued but how different they seem on the outside. You’re a multifaceted gal.

      I’m also impressed how quickly you connected your books to the themes of your life. I have a feeling that you’re more like your characters and stronger than you think. Thanks, HG!

      • Helaine Grenova

        I hope that I would be strong like Aragorn, Isi, Miri, etc. but as I have yet to be tested in fire I can’t really say.

  • Hey, Marcy!

    Great prompt; my favorite books of all time. Damn. The list is extensive. but to minnow: Charlotte’s Web (I must have read that 20 times prior to turning 12.); To Kill A Mockingbird; The Road; Brideshead Revisited (incredible!); Affliction; The Moon and Sixpence. Crikey! There are so many out there! Proulx, King, anything from Paul Theroux.

    Thank you for allowing my mind to wander and think of sundry tomes that have, and still, captivate me.

    Take care,
    Paul

    • Oh Paul,
      Your list is so cool. Very eclectic, as are you. I can’t wait until you find the connections between these novels. Interesting!

    • Winnie

      Hi Paul. We seem to have the same tastes. My shelf also has King, Proulx and Theroux.

  • Flora H. V. Adams

    I thought that this exercise would be lots of fun! I decided to give it a try, but then I started to panic. I like too many books! A lot of my favorite authors write huge book series, it’s so hard to just pick one.
    I also hate to admit that I never had the chance to read Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series.
    Favorite Books: Warriors, Into the wild by Erin Hunter, Warriors, the Omen of the stars, the Last hope by Erin Hunter,
    The lost journals of Ven Polypheme, the Floating Island by Elizabeth Haydon,
    The Familiars by Adam Epstien and Andrew Jacobson,
    Warriors, Firestars’ Quest by Erin Hunter,
    Notable Mentions!
    Cry of the Icemark by Stuart Hill.
    Oh bother. The Levin Thumps series by Obert Skye and the Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull.
    Our first books were the Landover series by Terry Brooks. Curse you, for introducing me into fantasy!

    The stories above are some of my favorites, but not all the books I’ve been exposed too. There were plenty more that are in the book collection, and even more that my family talks about, that they were fans of.

    Re-occurring themes: Third person following only one character for most of the prose for the official 5 that I chose.
    Epic quests with meaning. Rich with fantasy. For the Warriors, traditions, culture and customs, divided by clear boundaries, and topics discussion religion.
    I think all of them are books for young people. These were all read aloud to me and my sister, when we were between 10 and 17. It was a long time bonding experience.
    Yes, these are books that I enjoy. But most of my earlier stories that I’ve been compiling over the years stemmed from video games and movies. The more recent stories stemmed from the ever expanding list of music that I like, thanks to my sister, and stuff that I’m picking out of media across the internet.
    I also do a lot of research on animals on the internet, and I’ve been compiling stories that knock down the vision of vampires, werewolves and dragons down a peg or two, to wrangle them into a believable and realistic setting.
    Especially for vampires, which seems to be my biggest, ongoing project. I think the first introduction of vampires for me was Cry of the Icemark. After that, because I was in my teens, I read through the Twilight series. Looking back at it now makes me shudder. It’s not necessarily bad, but just so… cliché.
    And then a manga called Vampire Knight by Matsuri Hino. After seeking out and reading through all these vampires, I seemed to want to make versions of my own. I have loads of projects that feature them, and my newest one that I’m working on now is called “Vampire and the Priest.”
    It will feature fictional religions, and vampires struggling with it.
    It’s an engaging project!
    I’ll be writing more on this exercise privately. Thanks for the idea sparkers.

    • Wow, Flora.

      You dug deep. Excellent. Keep at it to find the connections back to your life because that’s where the real gems are. You can then tie it back to your writing.

      Good luck!

      • Flora H. V. Adams

        Thanks Marcy! Have a great day.

  • Jane Andrews

    To Kill a Mockingbird, The House at Pooh Corner, Catch-,22, My Life and Hard Times, by James Thurber, Huckleberry Finn. I guess that’s children, humor, the South. I’m not sure what else.

    • Hey Jane,
      Yes, those are the themes I saw, too. What about your childhood? Do these book connect back to your formative years in any way?

      • Jane Andrews

        To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the first novels I read for pleasure. I saw myself as Scout and my older brother as Jem. The book was similar to my childhood. The House at Pooh Corner, my husband and I read to our kids and I know some of it by heart. Very funny and wise. Thurber’s book showed me how to write funny. I love Thurber and Benchley and all those folks. Huckleberry Finn is not a perfect book, but it’s a great book. It has everything in it—adventure, escape, conflict, cruelty, moral dilemmas, humor…. and I was born and raised in the South. Catch-22—it’s complicated. Black humor to deal with horror? In all these books I love the skill with language, the music of the prose, the timing. I enjoy a strong voice. Sorry to go on so long. Tiddly pom.

  • Ailish R.

    I love doing exercises like this. It’s good for my psycho-analysis; I found out a lot about myself doing this! Thanks a lot!

    My top five favorite books: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Ranger’s Apprentice: Ruins of Gorlan, Rites of Passage, Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian, and Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.

    After thinking through it, I discovered that a lot of the common themes had to do with personal discovery. Most common were themes about accepting who you are, and overcoming selfishness, desire, revenge, etc.

    I don’t remember much from my childhood, which is saying something considering that I’m only fourteen, but if I remember one piece of advice that any adult ever gave me, it’s this: “Accept your faults with good grace. Accept compliments as though they were precious gifts.”

    I think that it means that being true to yourself is important to me, and that there should rightfully be many obstacles on the road to discovery. I also think that it means that hope for good is always there, even if a personal issue is difficult to overcome.

    Thanks again for the enlightening experience! I enjoyed it.

    • Fabulous, Ailish! I’m glad you found this experience enlightening. It doesn’t matter that you’re fourteen or forty when you try this activity. Our hearts know our stories and they can take our writing to the next level.
      That’s what matters. Not our age, but our words on the page.

  • DizzyJade

    I like dark stories conflicted with magic and one’s mental side. I like reading about people going through depression, rejection, anxiety, insanity, and denial. I like it when books have a bit of mystery, but I don’t like full on mystery books usually. I am attracted to fantasy books about magical powers, not dragons and mermaids. Reading from the point of a villain sticks out to me, and I like it when people have sad back stories.

    Well, I’m a happy person.

    • You’re an INTERESTING person, DizzyJade,
      All the conflicts you mentioned make for great stories and that’s what we want: powerful and compelling. Try to see how these themes connect to your inner world, then add that to your writing mix. Good luck.

  • Wendy

    This was an interesting exercise Marcy! My favorite books from childhood…and picking just 5 was hard, but these are the 5 that left a mark so that is how I chose them. Most of them I still have a copy of: Something For Joey, The Best Little Girl In The World, The Little House On the Prairie, May I Cross Your Golden River and Flowers In the Attic. Interestingly, three of them dealt with illness which I ended up dealing with from my late teens in a milder form to a severe disability and the courage of the people in these books touched my heart. I think I wore out the copy of Something For Joey from the library! And May I Cross Your Golden River I found by accident in the library and its about a young athlete diagnosed with ALS and how his life just changed forever. As an adult again, most of the books are overcoming obstacles, Honestly by Sheila Walsh, Choosing to SEE: A Journey of Struggle and Hope by Mary Beth Chapman and Ellen Vaughn, then on to fiction and these books just stayed with me for weeks after I read them. Listen by Rene Guttridge and Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper and Handle With Care. Its so hard to narrow it down…Gone, Girl would have been on there as well…not because it was my favorite per se, but because it stayed with me long after I read it. I think that is what I want my writing to do hopefully some day…to say something or create something that makes people react to it…good or bad…where they just have to think about it. That to me is art at its finest. Maybe I got off track a little bit, but each of these books touched something deep in me, the struggle between good, evil, good things, bad things, life’s difficulties and perseverance. Telling great stories. Thank you Marcy! What a great exercise!

    • Little House on the Praise is a classic and I almost wore Something for Joey apart, too! And, Flowers in the Attic blew my mind. It seemed so beautiful and forbidden.

      My Sister’s Keeper is also my favorite Jodi Picoult novel by far. I really enjoyed Gone Girl, but I think Gillian Flynn’s other two novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places are so much better.

      These are all great books! You’ve definitely connected your inner and outer stories, Wendy. I hope this newfound knowledge brings even more power to your writing in the future.

  • This is easy-peasy for me.

    The latest was Unbroken, (I don’t know if I want to see the movie though). Bruchko, a story of a nineteen year old who went into the jungles of Venezuela where a tribe had killed all the white people who came before him. He lived with them and helped them get educated as doctors and lawyers to fight to keep their land which was being taken by the government.

    Footsteps to Freedom, a book you can only find in the library of Congress, about a Congolese who lived through the massacre of thousands of his people.

    Too Small To Ignore, the story about the man, Wes Stafford, who lived with his missionary family in the jungles of India and survived years of abuse and threats at a boarding school he was sent to. He spoke out against the abuse. He works with Compassion International.

    The Hiding Place about Corrie Ten Boom and her family who helped many hide from the Nazis. Most of her family died in prison camps. She was able to forgive the guard who had her sister put to death.

    Hmmm…I guess all true stories of triumph over evil. My own true story is about triumph over suffering also.

    • You’re right, Annie. It’s easy-peasy to see the connection of all your books, but your not talking about your garden-variety evil. We’re talking EVIL – the massacre of thousands, breaking of the human spirit. These are very deep pains.
      Your list is spectacular. Clearly, you like deep subjects. Thanks for sharing!

      • I have to add that I read, Camp 14, about a boy raised like an animal in a North Korean prison camp, but escaped. He never completely fit in the “normal world” after that. I think these books help me feel empathy and compassion for people all over the world who didn’t have a voice until they wrote their story. My worldview is deep and wide. I could delve into this further, but it would take pages. All true stories though. My own story was about facing monsters in my life. They’ve all gone “poof” now.

  • EndlessExposition

    Alright, I’ll give it a shot: the Skulduggery Pleasant books, the Amelia Peabody books, The Shadow of the Wind, Looking For Alaska, and The Cat Who books. I love them all for different reasons. Skulduggery and Amelia both instilled me with a love of danger, mystery, action, witty repartee and badass women. The Shadow of the Wind is the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. Every sentence is gorgeous, and it really gave me an appreciation for the art of building stories word by word. Looking For Alaska gave me a new perspective on how teenagers can be portrayed in fiction and I connected with the main characters in a way I never had before. And I’ve been reading The Cat Who series since I was a little kid. They were my first murder mysteries and instilled the love of the genre I still have today. One thing they all have in common is the strong and well developed relationships between the characters, which is always what I come to love the most in any story, and what I find most important in my own life.

    • From your list, the only book I’ve read is Looking for Alaska and OH! How I loved it. John Green is so talented, and funny and cool.
      I’ll have to check out The Shadow of the Wind. The title alone is lovely. Thanks.

  • Beth

    It’s hard to pick just five favorite books, but off the top of my head, I’ll have to go with the original Firebird trilogy by Kathy Tyers (books four and five, unfortunately, don’t make the cut), The Restorer’s Son by Sharon Hinck, The Force Unleashed by Sean Williams, Lord of the Rings, and Saint by Ted Dekker.

    The most pronounced reoccurring theme is the redemption of the main character from an inner darkness that, at the beginning of the story, has them on the wrong path and prevents them from transforming into the hero they need to become. I’ve long been most fascinated by anti-heroes and have always loved discovering what it will take to make them change their ways as they do, which typically ends up being some form of faith in something or someone larger than themselves. All the books have plots with large-scale conflicts and consequences, but also have an intense inner journey that manages to narrow the overall plot down to a tangible scale. A dash of sci-fi never hurts, either.

    • Ahh, yes, the anti-hero. I’m a big fan of him. I really like your list and it cracked me up that all the Firebird books didn’t make onto your list.

      You did great work. On your own, please do take it the rest of the way and explore the themes from your childhood. Are you the anti-hero? When you connect your inner and outer stories, I really think it’ll help your writing come alive.

  • Winnie

    My five favourite books? Now that you ask, which ones do I
    leave out? I’ve read so many, across all genres, it’s difficult to single any
    five out.

    Now that you’ve mentioned it, To kill a Mockingbird is one.
    It reminded me so much of my childhood, when we see and hear things, but don’t
    understand what is really going on around us. A book that has stuck in my mind
    is Nabokov’s Lolita. His descriptions I found quite stunning. A third is Brian
    Lehane’s Mystic River. I’m drawn to stories told from a deep point of view. Perhaps
    that’s why I liked the descriptions in Lolita – I’m always trying to get to the inner
    soul, of everything, our surroundings as well as the people in these scenarios. John
    Steinbeck’s’ East of Eden also springs to mind. I first read this story of two
    twins who were unbeleivably opposite in character in 1958 when I was still in school. All
    Raymond Carver’s short stories also fascinate me as they strip everyday life down to
    its bare essentials.

    Childhood reading was the normal stuff: Hardy Boys, Lone
    Ranger, all the adventure stories I could get hold of. The common theme
    throughout my reading boils down to my position in the family hierarchy. The
    second-last of nine children, one who was pushed aside and overlooked by
    siblings, I ended up spending time with my own imagination, wondering over the
    why, what, who, where and when of everything.

    • Your list is incredible, Winnie. I’d forgotten how much I like Mystic River.
      Sounds like your childhood groomed you to be a writer, growing your imagination day by day.
      Until you mentioned it, I hadn’t thought about the impact our position is our family hierarchies. Hmmm, I’ll have to explore that one later on my own.
      Thanks for this food-for-thought.

  • A.E. Albert

    Dune, Roots, Pride & Prejudice, and the harry potter and percy jackson series. I obviously love the underdog! Triumph of the human spirit. I guess that why in my book my hero is from a group home.

    • Excellent, A.E.!

      Isn’t it interesting how there is a connection? Underdogs make outstanding heroes. I love that your protagonist is from a group home.

      Best of luck with your writing.

  • Loved this post and the exercise. I’ve been struggling to narrow who my audience really is, what it is I have to offer. My favorite books are: Heidi, Little Women, A Child’s Garden of Verses, His Thoughts Said, His Father Said, The Shadow of the Almighty, Hind’s Feet on High Places.

    My life events are loss upon loss. I’m having trouble seeing main themes in them. Losing loved ones one after the other, perhaps makes me want to read about in tact families. And in the case of Heidi, she found a family. My tumultuous past also made me desire to find peace. I loved Hind’s Feet on High Places because she overcame her obstacles. So I do have a “you can do it,” to my writing. And poetry is one of my loves. Still, I think if I could more easily see the threads, perhaps I could do the narrowing that many suggest.

    Thanks for the post, Marcy. Oh, one other thing. if a movie doesn’t end the way I want, I just end it in my head differently. The stories have to end well.

    • You have an wonderful and inspiring list, Anne. Well done. Keep playing with this to further solidify the themes of your heart to strengthen your writing.
      And, there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending. 🙂

  • Love this exercise and the comments everyone has listed. Off to work on my own list.

  • Wow, what a helpful exercise that really helped delve into what lies behind my writing.
    Favourite books:
    Number 1, all-time-favourite : This Blinding Absence of Light, by Tahar Ben Jelloun
    2. Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann
    3. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
    4. Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah
    5. A french book called ‘Petit Homme’ by Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, told from the POV of a 4 year-old boy going on a trip with his Father and suspecting the death of his mother.

    Common themes I found were above all the triumph of the human spirit, the power to see and shine a light in the darkness, transformation and also any change involved in the process of ‘becoming a better/or worse person’ and the reasons behind it. I seem to be drawn to themes like forgiveness and personal struggles where a dark past has proven to be formative in one way or another, I like to think that any experience – however dark – leads us where we need to go even though we don’t know it yet. Unity of grief and love is a theme that also sums it all up and is quite recurrent in my readings.

    Personal formative stories from my past:
    Perhaps the most formative is our big move to Morocco when I was 7. It stands as a big symbol of transformation in my life and quite ironically, I have almost no recollection of my life before that. This led to feelings like ‘being a stranger among others’ but also ‘finding bonds and resemblances in the least expected places’.
    When I was a teenager I lost my father whom I barely knew which gave birth to mixed feelings that I would definitely categorize as personal struggles.
    Upside? It taught me admiration and a profound love for my strong-willed mother who is undoubtedly the embodiment of light in the darkness…

    • Beautifully done, Elissaveta. There is definitely power and struggle and hope in both your books and your life. These are the stories of your heart. Nourish them to enrich your stories. Thanks.

  • Len

    My 5 favorites were ‘Tick Tock’, ‘Ella Enchanted’, ‘House of the Scorpion’, ‘The Dresden Files'(<–not a single book, but my favorite inspiration), and 'It'.
    I'm seem to be drawn to fairly dark stories where the heroes have serious inner conflicts to resolve. Most of them are trying to find a place to belong or a way to feel whole.
    I also seem to enjoy stories that use humor in dark situations and protagonists that are fairly functional people but who have complicated issues beneath the surface.
    The themes make a lot of sense, since I've moved around for most of my life and never had much of a family. My life experiences have been a mix of pretty dark and pretty wonderful situations and I've always used (somewhat cheesy)humor to make it through the rough times.
    This was a pretty cool writing exercise! Thanks! 😀

    • You did a terrific job of connecting your inner and outer stories, Len. Keep focusing on these themes because this where your most powerful writing lies.

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  • Madani

    Hi,
    In one of your posts you said’ write, that’s what makes you a writer’.
    As I am a writer in French, in one of my novels I made two of my characters have the following discussion:
    The hostess: what are the books that touched you the deepest?
    The guest: The books I read when a child or the ones I read as an adult?
    The hostess: Let’s start by the childhood books.
    The guest: Well, I would say ‘ The little prince’ of Antoine de St Exupéry. The common denominator between that writer and me is that when he was a child he always wanted to draw but his parents forced him to learn arithmetics and geography and when i was a school boy I was obliged to learn mathematics and was told to forget all that has any relationship with literature.
    The hostess: Another book?
    the guest: Yes, Its is ‘ sans famille’ ‘with no family’ of Hector Malot and then Oliver Twist of Dickens and many others.
    The hostess: And as an adult?
    the guest; Many French books such as ‘ La mare au diable’ ‘ The marsh of the devil’ of George Sand, Paul and virginie of Bernardin de saint pierre, and le père Goriot of Honoré de Balzac etc… but the books that really compelled me to write are English, I mean Charlotte Brontë, H.D Lawrence.
    The hostess: what about the 20th century books?
    The guest: I don’t why but I don’t the 20th century literature.

    Hey, marcy
    The guest is me of course.

    • You have a very old soul, Madani. From our email conversations, it sounds like you also write books from another time and that is WONDERFUL. Nobody should be all the same. Keep following your heart and see where it leads you.
      Thank you for your lovely comment.

  • I have been reading many of your newsletters but this post really caught me at a time when I was questioning where I should go with my writing. In doing the exercise my favorite books today (they do evolve over time!) are: The Book
    Thief; The Shell Seekers; Eat, Pray,Love; A Thousand Splendid Suns; and, from my childhood, Swiss Family Robinson. The themes are many but do center around transformation, rising above great odds, and strong relationships. I can definitely see that connection between that theme and my childhood. I was the invisible, overweight, middle child of very busy parents who were submerged in making a success of a business while raising a rather large family in a very small space. I lived in my head then and somewhat now, and oh, what times I had! Escape, survival, passion X 10! My writing has taken a bit of a dark turn but I think that the endings are always filled with triumph. I have fallen into some sentimental endings when shortening my passionate stories of triumph – this inspires me to stay true to the inside and kick up the ending a notch – triumph can be quiet BUT oh, so much more exciting when it is loud!

    • What incredible insights you have, Eileen. I think you nailed the themes of your favorite books and definitely connected them to your life. And what POWERFUL themes inspire you. I hope they help your writing!

  • Karoline Rose

    This was a wonderful exercise for me. I always knew that the classics were my favorite, but I didn’t discover a main theme that they have in common until I read this post. Apparently, I’m drawn to stories which discuss self-discovery. My current project definitely focuses on this. I’m glad you started this discussion, and I look forward to finding out more about my own writing by examining the writing I love.

    • Outstanding, Karoline. I’m so glad this post helped and good luck with your current story.

  • Lauren Timmins

    I too, love darker stories. I loved the Lovely Bones. At this moment, my favorites are: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Macbeth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Harry Potter, and The Great Gatsby. All over the genre spectrum, and timeline. And there isn’t much of a connection (that I can see) between them. I love The Perks of Being a Wallflower because I can identify with Charlie. And I would love to experience riding in the back of a truck through a tunnel, when all goes quiet, and shoot out from the other end into a world of light and feel his infinity. Macbeth has a realistic ending; Shakespeare doesn’t always let the protagonist win. And, the protagonist doesn’t deserve to win. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea… I guess there’s something about the Captain. About being under the sea, away from the world. That ending stuck with me as well. I read it in fifth grade, so I don’t remember the details anymore, but I remember feeling terribly sorry for the Captain. Harry Potter’s setting always captivated me, and I loved the struggle between good and evil. The way good won. And the Great Gatsby made me think about life in general, how motivated the human race is by money, how we’re remembered after we’re gone. I’ll stop rambling now, haha. I can’t see a clear theme through these.

    • You have GREAT tastes in reading, Lauren. I really couldn’t find a specific connection with your books either, so try on your own to go to part two and find the themes of your life.

      For YOU, rather than having an running theme in your books and life, each of the books may represent a different theme for you. Just dig deeper to see what you can find.

      Thanks. BTW, I also LOVED Perks of Being a Wallflower.

  • My favorites are: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, 1984, the Chronicles of Narnia series, and now Cormac McCathy’s epochal masterpiece Blood Meridian, which i finished.

    One of my favorite types of storylines is that of the authoritarian government and the rebellion against such. This is why I am drawn to the Hunger Games book series, for all their cheesy romance and excessively spare style. That’s also why I like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, that great epic novel about the 1848 Revolution against the monarchy. This theme of rebellion against tyranny is an attractive theme to me, and that’s why I have fondness not only to the American and French Revolutions but also the political philosophy of libertarianism.

    Likewise, I am reading Fahrenheit 451, and as I read, I begin to appreciate Ray Bradbury’s genius in storytelling and how he conveys it in simple and readable, if “pulpy,” writing. In fact, I finished the first two sections in a pretty short period of time. Another new favorite of mine is Gillian Flynn’s potboiler Gone Girl.

    Then again, I have yet more reading and writing to do, hehe.

    • Excellent, Anand. Clearly, you deep journeys — whether they are physical and emotional. I loved your list. Thanks for sharing.

  • Rowena

    Thanks for coming up with this exercise, Marcy! It brought up certain insights and connections for me.

    Off the very top of my head, my 5 favorite books are:

    1. Alice in wonderland

    2. Shipping News

    3. Robocalypse

    4. I, Robot

    5. Robinson Crusoe

    Common themes in these books: Traveling to unfamiliar places, experiencing completely new and different things from previous life, loneliness, success despite obstacles, improving one’s situation, succeeding despite great adversity.

    My own life:

    I grew up used to being alone because my parents constantly moved us from place to place, always in an unfamiliar environment, a different town, state or country. I was so often the new kid at school, and rarely stayed in any new place long enough to make friends. I eventually gave up even trying. My parents were asocial at home, and discouraged socializing outside it.

    My childhood was a long stretch of daily absurdity at home and school. I belonged nowhere except in libraries, or by our home bookshelves. Libraries have always been a haven for me. Books have always been my friends, my temporary escapes, which were especially important during a helpless, neglectful and abusive childhood. Fortunately, I learned to adapt to new locations my whole life, and accumulated self-learned social survival skills and communication skills.

    As a grown up, I love travel on my own terms, and even voluntarily moved to a relatively remote island, a very unfamiliar world, had very new experiences culturally, learned different views of life, and adapted somewhat. There was internet and cable TV, which made life there much easier.

    Common themes between my life and my favorite books:

    Alice: unfamiliar environment accidentally, strange creatures encountered, odd situations, absurdities, adapted, persevered to find her way back to her familiar world, tried different things.

    Shipping news: The protagonist, a loner lacking in social skills, starts out being used by people, giving affection that was not returned, ignorant of social graces, moves to an unfamiliar place, meets different people, makes friends, finds love, enjoys life.

    Robocalypse: Unavoidable forces change the characters’ world. They must adapt, persevering against bizarre adversities towards creating positive change, or perish.

    I, Robot: I read it when I was just a kid, and don’t quite recall the stories, but my interest in science fiction may have begun there. I’ve always been interested in finding out what makes various humans tick, so maybe my interest in humanoid robots is part of that quest.

    Robinson Crusoe: Uncontrollable forces (a shipwreck, I think) lead to his being stranded alone on a remote tropical island. So, he is in a strange place from which he cannot escape, where he must adapt and fend for himself in unfamiliar surroundings, mostly alone. He attempts to connect to another human being who does not speak his language.

    • Tremendous job, Rowena. You did a beautiful job and I’m thrilled this gave you so many insights. Use them to really take your writing to its full potential.

  • Trish

    Jane Eyre, The Book of Esther, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Schindler’s List, How the Irish Saved Civilization

    • Hey Trish – go all the way and make the connections of this list to your the stories of your life. That’s where your answers exist for your writing.

      • Trish

        Hi Marcy, Yes I did indeed do it, but I didn’t want to share the stuff about my life. Nevertheless, it’s clear from these five books that I’m interested in women overcoming enormous hurdles, and people who save other people, not just one but thousands at a time. These kind of books remind me that I can overcome my much smaller problems. And Marcy, thanks for pointing out the connection between this and my own writing which I’ve just realised has similar elements!

        • Excellent, Trish. You’re just being all-kinds of awesome everywhere this week.

          Good luck to you and thanks for sharing!

  • Colby Davidson

    Catcher in the Rye, Ender’s Game, The Fault in Our Stars

  • Over the years our reading habits change considerably. My early years consisted of reading Classic Comics, which provided me with an overabundance of notes for book reviews throughout elementary and high school English classes. Those were my Learning years, through my Earning years; books that I actually read consisted of manuals and reports with little time for reading for enjoyment. However there was time for the occasional Sherlock Holmes, Maigret and Inspector Montalbano. These novels are still part of my insatiable quest for knowledge in criminology and the law, but in a much more entertaining way that’s quite evident in my writings.

  • Well, some of the books that pooped up immediately
    1. The Great Gatsby
    2. Frankenstein
    3. Jane Eyre
    4. The Black Prisim
    5. Page
    6. Sense and Sensibility

    – These books show the complexity of the world and the human character. They show that not everything is black or white, or shades of gray. It’s a Whirlpool of colors. Good, bad, ugly, disgusting, delicious, etc. The represent people growing up or not at all, misfortune, revelations, and overcoming or failing at overcoming obstacles.

    – I tend to write alot about misfortune and different colors of people in the world. And I try to show the complexity of human nature and the world that surrounds us.

    – I also gravitate towards action and drama. <3

  • Mary Daniels Brown

    I found this to be a very powerful exercise, Marcy. Thank you for it. I’ve blogged about it here: http://www.notesinthemargin.org/weblog/2015/02/10/what-your-favorite-books-tell-you-about-your-writing/

  • Bill

    Marcy

    *The Corner:
    A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood
    by David Simon and Edward Burns. The only nonfiction on my list.
    It’s set on a corner in Baltimore not far from where I grew up. It’s
    so well written that you could open it to any page and read any
    paragraph and enjoy it immensely, even though the subject matter,
    drug addicts, is very depressing. I loaned my copy and will buy
    another, if necessary, to be able to do the above. The writing is
    that amazing.

    *The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I might reread this.

    * The Puzzle Lady series by Parnell Hall. Cora pretends to write crossword
    puzzles while solving complicated murders with much humor.

    * Dashiell Hammett

    * John Grisham

    * Robert Ludlum

    * John D. MacDonald

    * Woody Allen. I’ve reread some of his pieces. Liable to reread others at any time.

    * Erma Bombeck

    I’m currently rereading 8 of The Bernie Rhodenbarr series plus 2 I’ve never read by
    Lawrence Block. These have much humor, also.

    I never read when I was young. I would have liked The Hardy Boys. I watch
    Nancy Drew films.

    Common theme: (4) murder mysteries, 2 humor. That’s why I like The Thin Man movies,
    & Monk TV show.

    Triumph of the human spirit is pervasive in all of the above and in what I write.

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