I love to read. Given an option, I’ll choose reading over any other activity. If I were the sort of person to put bumper stickers on my bicycle, there’d be one that says, “I’d rather be home with a good book.” Fortunately, as a writer, I need to read — not just to check out the competition, but to keep honing my skills for crafting stories and characters.
Yet there are times when I regret picking up a book, when I worry that its author’s ideas and style are going to wend their ways into my own writing. I first noticed this phenomenon in high school. Whenever we were reading Shakespeare, we’d all start speaking ersatz Early Modern English: “Our teacher doth overtask us with burdensome work,” and “Harken to the sporting men as they leaveth the field of battle wherein lieth the poor opposition, trouncéd unto the very earth.”
It isn’t so amusing, however, when I’m trying to write a series of stories and find that Joan Aiken has been there first.
No, don’t worry, she hasn’t actually written the stories I’m working on. Hers (in The Serial Garden) and mine are similar only in tone. But I had to sit up and take notice when I read the name of the children’s pet unicorn: it’s the same as that of a minor but critical character in my novel, Kenning Magic. Did she, like me, look for names in Roget’s Thesaurus (his lists are wonderfully useful)? Or is she, unlike me, a gardener familiar with obscure shrubs?
Aiken hits the perfect note in The Serial Garden by making the magic in her stories unremarkable. Weird and wacky things happen (usually on Mondays), but the characters go on as if everything is normal. When several dozen unicorns show up in the children’s garden, their father’s response is, “My garden will be trampled to pieces! How will we ever get rid of them?”
The lesson here is that magic IS normal in the characters’ world. They don’t gasp and say “Oh my! What in the world was that?”, just as we aren’t startled by the gadgets stuffed in our pockets, handbags, briefcases, and satchels. Electronics is our everyday, normal, nothing-at-all-surprising-about-it magic.
I know that magic is a given in fantasy, but in most books it’s something the character has to strive to acquire (Ged in Earthsea, Harry Potter at Hogwarts, Daenerys in Game of Thrones) — it’s something the characters do. Whereas in Aiken’s book, it’s something that happens, just like rain and the weekly arrival of Mondays.
Since February, I’ve been drafting a world in which a dragonling is as normal as a duckling or gosling — where magic is nothing astonishing. After starting The Serial Garden, however, I’ve worried about sounding like an Aiken wanna-be, and my writing came to a 4-week halt. I’ve finally figured out that I need a heavy dose of adult books — perhaps some George Eliot or Thomas Hardy to counterbalance Aiken’s influence. That will clear my writer’s palate. So. I push anxiety into a corner and get on with my writing.
[Can I just take this moment to note Aiken’s descriptions? Here’s an elderly visitor:
Cousin Elspeth was a tall, rangy lady, with teeth that Mr. Armitage said reminded him of the cliffs of Dover, a voice like a chain saw, cold, granite-colored eyes that missed nothing, hair like the English Channel on a gray, choppy day, and an Aberdeen accent as frigid as chopped ice.
I love those teeth — and the hair! This is a woman who could stop a train with a glance.]