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.


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.

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!
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