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What Are You Reading?

One of my favourite things to do when I’m writing is work out what my characters are reading.

This is one of those areas where you can do a lot in a small way: set scenes, hint at moods, illuminate character. And from my perspective as a historical novelist, knowing what old-timey classic was once the most up-to-date bestseller is one more brick in the edifice of historical vibes.

I’m going to pick out a few examples from my work to illustrate the different ways your MCs’ bedside book might help build your world and characters. Many quotations follow.

It is important to bear in mind that your reader (actual) may not have read the book your reader (fictional) is devouring, so if you want it to shed light on characters, you might have to explain.

Establishing character

There are some fairly obvious things you can do with books here. Your heroine reads erotica: okay, she’s sex positive. Or she’s a nanny who reads only horror novels: that’s clearly flagging something for later. Or the hero is collapsed on a bed reading Murderbot for the sixth time: we’ve all been there. Or she’s a lawyer who reads romances but she’s shy of anyone knowing, and then she sits next to a grumpy billionaire on a plane and he’s reading The Art of War and he looks over at her Kindle and sneers at her reading matter so they get into an argument… Etc.

But if we get a bit more specific, we can do some more fun stuff, I think. 

My Will Darling Adventures trilogy stars an ex-WW1 soldier (not from the London/Home Counties posh part of the country, common as muck) who now owns a second hand bookshop. His love interest is an upper class spy and bibliophile. It is safe to say they don’t share many tastes.

Books play a huge part in this as plot elements, set dressing, and occasionally weapons. But they can also be used to enhance character work. Take this exchange from book 2, The Sugared Game.  Here, Kim and Will have woken together at Kim’s flat.

By the time Kim returned with a tray, Will was sitting up in bed flicking through a book and feeling civilised.

“Tea,” Kim said, handing him a cup. Will took a sip. It was horrifyingly weak. “Are you reading The Waste Land?”

No, you are.” It had been the only thing on Kim’s bedside table. Will didn’t consider Modernist poetry much of a bedtime story. “I’ve read it already. I had a copy in the shop a couple of months ago.”

“Thoughts?”

“It doesn’t rhyme.”

This is a tiny, insignificant interlude, just them making conversation while facing up to the real difficult conversations they need to have. But even so…

  • Kim is the kind of person who has The Waste Land (a hugely controversial, difficult and intellectual Modernist poem) on his bedside table, and is open to discussions of poetry.
  • Will is not that kind of person, but he’s intellectually curious. When the book came his way he read it.
  • Will has absolutely nothing to say about it, so he doesn’t try. He doesn’t apologise for it, he doesn’t try to be clever or bullshit his way through it, and he also doesn’t go on a rant about it not being proper poetry. It’s an entirely pragmatic, phlegmatic response from a man who isn’t trying to prove anything.

I think in this case you do need to know a bit about The Waste Land’s cultural impact in order to get the full value of the exchange; I chose not to explain it all because it’s such a small scene that explanation would have overloaded the significance. Some readers will skim past, no harm done. Others will rack this up as an example of the gulf between these two—and also the way they can accept one another’s differences.

That’s a small example. Here’s a big one.

A Seditious Affair is a Regency-set romance. It opens extremely abruptly with a fairly brutal BDSM sex scene between two anonymous men. That segues into them relaxing with a glass of wine and talking about a book one has lent the other:

“I finished the book,” the Tory said.

“Oh, aye? What’d you think?”

“Good. Terrifying. Strange. I can’t understand why you like it.”

“Why would I not?”

“I wouldn’t have thought you’d agree with it.” The Tory gave him a wry smile. “After all, its burden is the need for man to keep in his place—”

“What?” said Silas incredulously.

“The overreaching man dares to play God and pays a terrible price. Abuses the natural order and creates a monstrous thing.”

“Bollocks,” Silas said. “That ain’t what it’s about.”

“It’s what happens.”

“No. What happens is he creates, he’s responsible for, something that should be”—Silas waved his hand—“great and strong, something that he owes a duty to. And he says to it, The hell with you. Go die in a ditch. I’ll have my big house and pretty wife. And it says, You don’t get to live in a grand house and ignore me. Do your duty or I’ll tear you down. Treat me like I’m as good as you, or I’ll show you—”

That I’m not,” the Tory interrupted. “The creature murders—”

“Because he ain’t given a chance to live decent,” Silas interrupted right back. “You treat men like brutes; you make ’em brutes. That’s what it says.”

“No, you create brutes when you distort the rules of nature and the order of things,” the Tory retorted. “That’s what the book’s about. It’s obvious.”

“It’s not.” Silas snorted. “You think its author meant that?”

“Oh, do you know the author?” The Tory looked intrigued. “Who is he?”

“She.”

“A woman? A woman wrote Frankenstein?”

The love of books is a major connector between these two (a Tory government official and a radical seditionist; this was not the easiest romance I’ve ever written). I could have had them agreeing how wonderful Persuasion is, or similar, and used that to show them bonding or being in agreement. But it’s far too early in the book for that, so instead, I’m using Frankenstein as a way to demonstrate their wildly opposed views and experiences in action. They literally haven’t read the same book: Silas sees a condemnation of selfish rulers/patriarchs, where Dominic the Tory sees a parable about the dangers of overreaching ambition.  Even if the reader doesn’t know the basic Frankenstein story, it will be clear these two people are coming from incredibly different places, and have a long way to go before they reach common ground. 

What Oft Was Thought But Ne’er So Well Expressed

The best poetry is a simple yet perfect summation of the human condition in a few words. As such, it’s very useful if you can steal it.

I have a few books in which poetry becomes a touchstone for people who can’t necessarily express their own feelings. In An Unseen Attraction the romance is between an autistic-dyspraxic man who struggles to fit in a society that doesn’t understand, and a short, plain, bespectacled taxidermist.

Clem kissed his neck. “I love you too.”

“You said so before,” Rowley whispered. “And I didn’t know what to do. I can’t—why would you?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“There’s so much about you to love. Your heart, and your kindness, and your eyes. And I’m just . . . I’m nothing special. I’ve tried to be nothing special for my whole life—”

“You failed,” Clem said. “And I’ve been falling in love with you for at least as long as you have with me, because you’re wonderful and quiet and clever and kind, but I don’t need any more reason to love you than that you’re Rowley Green. Do you know ‘My Star’ by Robert Browning?”

“I don’t know why you even ask.”

“The poet says he watches one star. All his friends are stargazing and doing astronomy and studying planets, and he just pays attention to one single star in the whole firmament, one star that’s marvellous to him, and he says, ‘What matter to me if their star is a world? Mine has opened its soul to me; therefore I love it.’”

Rowley mouthed the last words to himself. “Uh . . . I see. I think. Really?”

“My star,” Clem said, and bent to kiss him.

‘My star’ becomes their special private endearment, and it encapsulates what this book is about: the love of a person in all their uniqueness, because they are exactly who they are, and be damned to anyone who can’t see what’s so special about them. (Read the whole poem here, it’s gorgeous.)

I’m also going to quote the heavily book-bound A Seditious Affair again. Silas has introduced his Tory lover, Dominic, to the works of radical visionary poet William Blake. Blake’s hand-produced books appear as rare and valued objects, gifts, and even an alibi throughout the book. But the key, pivotal scene uses Blake’s writing to encapsulate the lovers’ emotions and provide a turning point. Bear in mind Dominic is an upright religious gentleman who is secretly a gay submissive masochist with a humiliation kink, racked with guilt and shame at his non-conformist desires. I had to quote the whole poem for that reason, because it gives voice to the things Dominic has not previously allowed himself to think or believe.

Dominic stopped at random on an illustration of a severe, kneeling monk, and read aloud.

I went to the Garden of Love
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And Thou shalt not, writ over the door;
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be:
And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds
And—

His voice cracked. Silas finished the poem, with unusual gentleness:

And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

“That,” Dominic said. “That is . . .”

“Aye.”

“Have you met him? Blake?”

“Few times. Bit odd.” Silas coughed. “He, uh, reckons he talks to angels.”

Dominic could well imagine it. If he could write like this, draw like this, think like this, he would probably believe he had been touched by God too. He turned a few more pages, needing to keep handling this lovely, wild thing, to be sure he owned it. “Anything he’s written, any of these illustrated books, I’ll take them. Can you get them for me?”

“Dare say. They get odder.”

“I’m sure they do.” He had read The Marriage of Heaven and Hell over and over again since Silas had given him a copy. Half of it made no sense, and what he did follow he mostly disagreed with, and the whole thing made him quiver with a sense of terrible possibility. A whirling cloud of madman’s words, ringing with half-understood notes of something that resonated within.

The enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity.

“Thank you for this,” he said quietly. “For the books. For Blake. For the ways you have changed me.”

Historical…ness

Books in books don’t always have to have big metaphorical impact. Sometimes they’re part of worldbuilding, and this really helps in historical novels especially. In the 1890s-set Any Old Diamonds, Alec is reading on a train.

“Are you enjoying that?”

“I wouldn’t say enjoying, precisely.”

“Your face has suggested as much. What on earth are you reading?”

“It’s a new thing. The King In Yellow. Good in its way, but I don’t know if I like its way. Weird and macabre and feels rather like an opium dream. It’s about a play that induces madness in anyone who reads it.”

Jerry slanted a brow. “Sounds like the author’s been at the St. James’s Theatre recently.”

One of the businessmen guffawed, and added, “I beg your pardon.” Jerry waved a graceful hand.

Alec hid behind his book again, feeling rather self-conscious. Jerry’s remark had been an allusion to The Importance of Being Earnest, a smash hit earlier in the year, until the author had been arrested for gross indecency. Taking his name off the programme and advertising hadn’t saved the box office from the taint of scandal, and the play had closed. Wilde had only been in prison two months, the scandal had yet to fully subside, and Alec was rather conscious that The King in Yellow had a similar sort of atmosphere to Wilde’s work. Perhaps he should have broughtsomething less decadent. Perhaps Jerry was angry he’d given them away.

This is here to serves as a reminder of a few features of the era—the brutally homophobic atmosphere, the shock of Wilde’s fall and the vulnerability of queer men, but also the fin-de-siecle mood of decadence of which Wilde had been a part and which now feels more dangerous. It’s an added reminder of Alec’s precarious situation, personally and within his era.

Less grimly, in The Duke at Hazard (out in July!) our heroes are both fans of “the Waverley author”, ie Sir Walter Scott, who was still publishing anonymously at this time. Scott was a very popular historical novelist, and wrote a book, Kenilworth, set in the time of Elizabeth I. On the face of it, this is in here because reading Kenilworth causes the Duke to visit Kenilworth, thus putting some plot in motion. But it’s also part of a larger atmosphere, in that this is a road trip book in which we see that the UK’s historical tourism industry was already an established thing. (Stratford upon Avon has been shamelessly milking Shakespeare for at least 250 years and they are not planning to stop.) I find this delightful, in the same way it pleases me to point up to my reader in 2024 that they’re reading about people in 1821 who are reading about people in 1575.

Another useful historical element: literacy. In Jackdaw, Jonah is profoundly dyslexic, so his lover Ben reads Dickens aloud. This is part of their romance arc, but it was also entirely standard: a literate person would read the latest number to any amount of people who couldn’t access it, and families sitting together at their own occupations while one person read was a very common entertainment. In The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen, baronet Gareth wants to give the working class Joss a book as a gift but is unsure if he’s able to read well enough. That was a fact of life for a lot of people, whether they lacked education or had learning difficulties of whatever kind, which would of course go unsupported. It’s worth acknowledging.

_____________

You can use what your characters are reading to illustrate all kinds of things about them, or their era, to show their similarities or differences, to make them relatable or otherwise to the reader. In this spirit, it is not unknown for contemporary romancers to have their heroines reading actual contemporary romance novels. I think this is a fourth-wall-breaking mistake, personally. And I have never got over the book where the author had her heroine not only reading one of her own books, but also commenting approvingly on how good it was. Like. Madam.

_______

The Duke at Hazard is out 18th July.

Thanks to Lola Pecciarini for the inspiration!

8 replies
  1. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    I really enjoyed how you wove in The Four Just Men in Death In the Spires — had never heard of it before, googled it, and the whole story of how that went down was wild. The thematic resonance was one thing, but it was also just fun to learn about.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Oh that is bonkers stuff. I enjoy Wallace, in a very low-expectations way.

      I kind of wanted to write a lot about Death in the Spires and thematic use of books, but it would end up giving away the entire plot, lol. (Especially Cymbeline.)

      Reply
  2. Sarah Black
    Sarah Black says:

    Thank you for the interesting blog post- I’ve been in a fight to the death with The Waste Land for years. But I wanted to tell you that my little dog has fallen in love with your Magpie Lord books- I have then on Audible and I can’t leave the house without turning on one of the stories for Ellie to listen to while I’m gone. I love them as well- I greatly admire your plotting! Best, Sarah

    Reply
  3. chacha1
    chacha1 says:

    One of the many great things about your books is that, as intensely literate as you are, and as strongly present as books, reading, and writing are within the story worlds, the use is never performative or – as you mention – a fracture of the fourth wall. It’s never ‘look how clever I’m being with this allusion,’ there’s always a point to it. In this as in other ways, you inspire me.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Oh, there has to be a point! I will freely admit the point is sometimes a silly one (eg a character reading gothic romances wile living through one) but you have to do things for a reason,

      Reply
  4. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I immediately thought of Daniel finding Archie puzzling over his poems in Think of England, and how that conversation builds something fragile between them. And how Saul makes a note to borrow an Agatha Christie at the end of Spectred Isle – another step in rebuilding his life.

    But when I first saw the title of this post, I thought it might be about your reading. I follow you on GoodReads, where you have introduced me to some wonderful books and authors, particularly AJ Demas, Elin Gregory, and Melissa Scott – thank you!

    Reply
  5. azteclady
    azteclady says:

    “They literally haven’t read the same book”

    Oh boy, indeed.

    Your books generally move me, but they also make me think, and I really enjoy these posts, as I learn to better appreciate good writing.

    Reply

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