Everything I know about writing I learned from Mary Stewart

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Mary Stewart

Everything I know about writing, I learned from Mary Stewart.

That’s a slight exaggeration, of course; but not as much as you’d think. I grew up in France, the daughter of an American mother and a French father, and my mother’s TBR pile was always toppling over with the English-language books she shared with me — and in fact insisted I read. Romantic suspense appealed to me from about age nine on, and we had (thanks to trips to London to raid Brentano’s and W.H. Smith’s) nearly the entire Stewart opus. And I fell in love with those books, over and over again, reading and re-reading them until I had entire portions down to memory.

I may have been unconsciously following her style when, in my early teens, I myself began writing; but it was as an adult that I truly came to see Stewart’s whole opus — 20 adult novels over 40 years — as the best writing classes imaginable.

Her opening lines draw readers immediately into the story and the personality of the protagonist (talk about “you had me at hello”!). Check them out:

  • “Carmel Lacy is the silliest women I know, which is saying a great deal.” (Airs Above the Ground).
  • “The whole affair began so very quietly.” (Madam, Will You Talk?)
  • “I am an old man now, but then I was already past my prime when Arthur was crowned king.” (The Crystal Cave)
  • “My lover came to me on the last night in April, with a message and a warning that sent me home to him.” (Touch Not The Cat)
  • “I met him in the street called Straight.” (The Gabriel Hounds)
  • “In the first place, I suppose, it was my parents’ fault for giving me a silly name like Gianetta.” (Wildfire at Midnight)

Her descriptions of places have you smelling the flowers she lovingly names and feeling hot sun on your face; whether you’re in southern France or Greece or Lebanon or Austria or England, you have an instantaneous and extraordinarily vivid sense of the locale. “Her eye for detail could be used to maximum effect — the texture of a cloak or the color of a sky — with nature to the fore of the action,” reads one of her obituaries.

And she can scare you with the best of them. Other authors, darker than Stewart — I’m thinking Thomas H. Cook, Phil Rickman, authors who are masters of suspense — may be able to build atmosphere, and do it well, but she weaves it around you until you suddenly realize your heart is beating faster and your palms are sweating… the terror sneaks up on you, as terror truly must.

The relationships she enables are no less complex. I use the word “enables” intentionally: these don’t feel like artificial creations, but like real organic feelings that come from the characters rather than the author — she’s just letting them flow through her. Her protagonists are smart, educated, independent, with a strongly developed sense of humor and not without faults; and so are their romantic interests. The development of these relationships (along with the requisite misunderstandings and obstacles) is both natural and sophisticated.

Her novels are filled with literary allusions, and they’re smart: she fully expects you to keep up, but never in a heavy-handed way. I’ve always felt with authors like Umberto Eco that if you don’t speak Latin you miss all the good jokes; Stewart’s allusions are unobtrusive and clever. She prefaces chapters with appropriate quotations from classic literature, and her protagonists have all had classical educations. “Mary Stewart sprinkled intelligence around like stardust,” columnist Melanie Reid wrote in the Glasgow newspaper The Herald in 2004. “The fineness of her mind shone through.”

So what did I learn about writing from reading Mary Stewart? To put readers in the story’s context as early as possible, preferably in the opening line. To nearly always write in the first person — yes, it’s limiting, but it’s also intense. To present a protagonist readers will care about. And to be (old-fashioned as it sounds) a lady about it. Sensationalism is out, lyricism is in.

Want to learn to write? Read Mary Stewart. Want a fantastic story? Read Mary Stewart. Want to see how the best of the best of romantic thrillers unfolds? Read Mary Stewart.

Mary Stewart’s last book was published in 1997; the rest of us are still just trying to keep up.

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Bestselling novelist of mystery and historical fiction. Writer, editor, & business storyteller at jeannettedebeauvoir.com.

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